Cameras are among the most important features of a phone for many buyers. After all, their phone is their camera so their quality can be the deciding factor in opting for one model over another.

And given that most phones – especially flagships - are otherwise very similar in terms of performance and screen quality, photography and video is where manufacturers can differentiate their offering from rivals.

Our aim with this comparison was to discover which phone has the best cameras for taking photos, videos and selfies.

We’ve tested and compared five phones with the best cameras currently available: iPhone XS Max, Galaxy S10 Plus, Google Pixel 3 XL, Huawei P30 Pro and the Xiaomi Mi 9.

As the iPhone XS has identical cameras to the Max, our comments apply to both phones. And the same goes for the Pixel 3, which shares the XL’s cameras. Samsung uses the same rear cameras on the S10 as the Plus we used here, but the S10 lacks the depth-sensing secondary camera at the front, so our review applies only partially to the S10.

You won't find every flagship phone here, as we're including only those which have cameras good enough to be called "the best". That isn't determined by specs or features, it's judged by the quality of the photos and videos they produce.

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.

The only settings we changed were to turn off any beauty modes on the selfie cameras, and to choose the highest resolution and frame rate for the video samples so you can see the best quality on offer. Most manufacturers make 1080p at 30fps the default setting because it uses so much less storage space, but this is far from the best quality available: all the phones here will record in 4K.

Camera tests

We’ve kept the comparisons to the core functions: photos with the main camera (including portrait modes with blurred backgrounds), selfies and videos. Extra modes, or the lack of them, have no impact on our verdicts.

Camera apps

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.

Subjectivity

Our hope is that you end up with a very good idea of how each phone’s cameras perform in the real world, but judging image quality is inherently subjective. Some people 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.

That’s why we’ve uploaded the original files from each phone so you can view the full-size photos and videos and decide for yourself – bearing in mind your own priorities – which phone you should buy.

Drawing conclusions

Rather than judge the photos by viewing them on each phone’s screen independently, we opened in them in Photoshop on a calibrated Philips Brilliance 272P. This is a 27in 4K display which allowed us to see all the detail in 4K video. Bear in mind that your own display may have a lower resolution, and may not produce accurate colours.

Check out these accessories which can make your photography and videos even better.

Phone camera specifications

 

Rear camera(s)

Front camera(s)

Video (highest quality)

Special features

Apple iPhone XS / XS Max

12Mp + 12Mp (2x zoom)

7Mp

4K at 60fps, not stabilised

Portrait Lighting, adjustable depth of field

Google Pixel 3 / 3XL

12.2Mp

8Mp + 8Mp wide

4K at 30fps, stabilised

Top Shot, Super Res Zoom, Night Sight

Huawei P30 Pro

40Mp, 20Mp (wide), 8Mp (5x zoom), Depth

32Mp

4K at 30fps, stabilised

Night mode, light painting, 960fps slo-mo, Cinema AI

Samsung Galaxy S10 Plus

12Mp + 16Mp (wide), 12Mp (2x zoom)

10Mp + 8Mp

4K at 60fps, not stabilised

960fps slo-mo, HDR10+ video

Xiaomi Mi 9

48Mp + 16Mp (wide), 12Mp (2x zoom)

20Mp

4K at 60fps, not stabilised

Night mode, lighting effects

What is the best camera phone?

Best overall camera phone of 2019: Huawei P30 Pro

The P30 Pro has the best cameras of any phone right now. The main rear camera is simply amazing, able to take fantastic photos even in very low light. The other cameras can’t match it for quality, but add huge versatility. The ultra-wide camera is great when you’re shooting indoors or for landscapes, but it’s the 5x optical zoom that impresses most.

Like every phone here, the P30 Pro isn’t perfect: the screen has a lower resolution than we’d like for the price and the mono speaker feels like a step backwards. Video quality is improved, but still lags behind the best (iPhone XS and Xiaomi Mi 9). But if you can live with those things and you take more photos than videos, the P30 Pro will not disappoint.

Runners-up

As you’ll see from the reviews below, there are other excellent choices besides the P30 Pro. Although we didn't include it in this roundup, Huawei’s Mate 20 Pro is almost as good, and if you’re not bothered about a zoom or a wide-angle camera, Google’s Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL delivers sharp and detailed pictures.

Xiaomi’s Mi 9 easily deserves to be in this comparison, and is capable of fantastic photos and stunning video.

And it’s no surprise to see the Galaxy S10 Plus as our new favourite from Samsung: it’s the first to sport a triple rear camera, so bests the S9 if you’re keen to have a wide-angle as well as telephoto lens.

The iPhone XS and XS Max can no longer claim to have the best cameras around, but they are still mighty impressive all-rounders when there’s lots of light. Compared to the P30 Pro they lack the zoom and wide-angle capabilities and with a lower-resolution main sensor can’t resolve the same amount of detail.

Also consider

The models mentioned above are the best, but if you can’t justify buying a flagship phone, here are some cheaper alternatives that we’ve tested and been impressed by:

Best Camera Phone Reviews

1. Huawei P30 Pro

Huawei P30 Pro

Huawei is now in a leading position for smartphone photography, having changed opinions with the impressive P20 Pro and then the building on that success with the Mate 20 Pro. 

The P30 Pro steps it up another notch with a 5x optical zoom using a periscope arrangement. It then adds a fourth camera that’s dedicated to detecting the depth of objects in the scene. One of the advantages of the system is that the P30 Pro is able to use its main camera for portrait photos and therefore offers the same field of view. Most of its rivals zoom in which, while not a damning problem, can be a bit irritating.

However, it’s the zoom capabilities that really set the P30 Pro apart. If you think a 2x telephoto lens is adequate, you’ll quickly change that opinion once you’ve use the P30 Pro’s 5x lens.

Huawei P30 Pro

As before, there’s a hybrid mode that uses the extra detail available from the main 40Mp sensor along with the 8Mp sensor behind the periscope lens to offer what Huawei terms ‘lossless 10x zoom’. It’s a different way of doing things than Google’s Super Res Zoom. We think it’s more effective, but it’s obvious just from looking at the photos at 1:1 in Photoshop that it is not lossless.

Close scrutiny aside, it’s impossible not to be impressed by the detail the P30 Pro can capture. In our sample shots, we use St. Pancras hotel and there’s a surprising amount of detail and clarity in the 10x photo. Even at 5x, the P30 Pro blows everything else here out of the water: there’s simply no contest from the 2x zooms.

What’s even more impressive is when you consider the range on offer, from the 16mm equivalent ultra-wide-angle lens to the 125mm equivalent 5x telephoto: no other phone is that versatile.

By default, Master AI – the ‘artificial intelligence’ image processing – is switched off, and for the most part you’ll probably leave it that way. There’s still a tendency to over-saturate everything when it’s on, but not to the extent that it did on the P20 Pro.

What we haven’t even talked about yet is the upgraded 40Mp ‘Super Sensing’ camera. Huawei ditched the traditional RGB sensor for one with two yellow sub-pixels instead of green. That’s because yellow is more sensitive to light and it makes the sensor able to capture 40 percent more light.

So in addition to taking sharp, detailed images during the day, it’s possible to shoot astounding photos in the dark, even if you have shaky hands. The Night mode works in a similar way to the P20 Pro’s, combining a selection of photos taken over a period of 8 seconds. So, yes, we’ve seen it before (and the Pixel 3 brought us Night Sight). However, the super-high sensitivity means you can get colourful images even when it’s almost pitch black. Frankly, it’s magic.

The main camera is the one to use for the majority of the time as it delivers the best photos. On the sample phone Huawei provided for this test, photos from the ultra-wide camera had noticeably different colours to those from the main and telephoto cameras, being darker and more saturated.

That’s most annoying when you’re shooting video and you switch from the main camera to ultra-wide, as the colours visibly shift.

The Apple-like camera app is fairly easy to use, but is packed with a few too many settings and features. One feature we wish it had was auto HDR. But no. Even though Huawei has improved the HDR mode on the P30 Pro, it remains a separate mode of its own which you have to switch to manually. And so, for the vast majority of the time, you won’t use it – a shame as it’s very good.

The P30 Pro is Huawei’s first phone to offer stabilisation in 4K, but there’s still no option to record it at 60fps. Video quality is very good, with lots of detail and good stereo sound. Stabilisation isn’t great in 4K, sadly, so you may want to stick to 1080p or invest in a phone gimbal.

As if 24Mp weren’t enough for the front camera, Huawei has upgraded it to 32Mp on the P30 Pro. And it does take a good selfie, but we couldn’t see a whole lot more detail than the P20 Pro’s 24Mp camera. Look up close and details are smeary, as you tend to see when there’s heavy noise reduction going on, but it’s possible there’s some “beauty” processing even when the slider is set to zero as it was for the selfies we took here.

So, the P30 Pro isn’t perfect: the ultra-wide and zoom cameras each have their flaws. But overall the versatility and fact that you can zoom in and get detail where other phones can’t, as well as shoot in impossibly low light makes the P30 Pro our pick of the bunch.

2. Samsung Galaxy S10 Plus

Samsung Galaxy S10 Plus

The S10 Plus’s cameras are quite different from the S9 Plus’s. Instead of minor tweaks, Samsung has added a third camera to go with the 12Mp main and 12Mp telephoto ones. It’s an ultra-wide one with a 16Mp sensor, meaning the S10 Plus, and regular S10 which shares the same rear camera setup, now have a bigger range than ever before.

The main camera is basically the same as you’ll find in the Galaxy S9. Its iris can switch between two apertures: f/1.5 (bigger) and f/2.4 (smaller). That’s useful as it can open up to let in more light at night, and close up in bright light to offer sharper photos.

The telephoto camera is also the same, with a 2x zoom and optical stabilisation. The newcomer gets a 16Mp sensor and a wide-angle lens which is the 35mm equivalent of 13mm with an f/2.4 aperture.

Samsung Galaxy S10 Plus

Given how good the S9’s cameras were, it’s no surprise to see similarly good quality from the S10 Plus’s photos. They have great dynamic range, so there’s lots of detail in both shadows and highlights. Auto HDR means you don’t have to think about whether you need to enable this setting or not.

White balance is generally reliable so colours are very good in just about all lighting except when it’s really dark. Zoom in on a big screen and there’s a lack of sharp, fine detail, but this is a minor complaint. You won’t notice the effect of the variable aperture, as it’ll mainly stick to f/2.4 in daylight.

The 2x zoom works well enough but obviously can’t compete with the P30 Pro’s 5x lens. As with the main camera, exposure, white balance and colours are very good.

Images shot with the ultra-wide camera obviously lack detail when you zoom in, but there’s no obvious drop-off in sharpness as you often find at the edges of the lens.

In portrait mode, the S10 Plus uses the same field of view as the main camera, and does a good job of depth detection. There’s a more realistic gradient to the blurring from foreground to background that makes the S10’s portrait photos more convincing than from other phones. But it still can’t adequately isolate wisps of hair, as any close examination will reveal.

For video, the S10 Plus offers great stabilisation in 4K, but not if you choose to record at 60fps. However, you’re no longer limited to five minutes per clip as with the S9. Another upgrade from the S9 is a beta option to record video at up to 4K30 in HDR10+, which is great if you have a TV that supports this standard. Just viewing HDR video on the S10 Plus’s screen, the difference was obvious to see with better contrast and colours.

The camera app uses the same format as most others, so you swipe between the various modes. Usefully the settings allow you to customise which modes are shown, so you can remove ‘Food’ and others that you don’t use.

Where the S10 Plus struggles is in low light. There’s no night mode and no hand-held long exposure mode. This means you’ll end up with blurry photos if you select a long shutter speed in the Pro mode, although if you’re determined you could use a tripod.

The dual front cameras could easily be mistaken for a standard and wide setup as on the Pixel 3, but the right-hand lens is purely for depth detection. There’s an option for a wide selfie, but it’s nothing like the difference you get with Google’s phone.

Selfies are pretty good, though, and the depth camera certainly seems to improve subject isolation. There are various modes available in the ‘Live Focus’ mode including Zoom, which we used for the portrait selfie in the gallery here.

Overall, the S10 Plus has excellent cameras. It takes wonderful photos in good light which are on a par with the best here. Its strengths include great portrait modes for both front and rear cameras, and great video stabilisation (plus the capability to record in HDR10+).

The zoom is much more limited than the P30 Pro’s, as are the S10 Plus’ low light capabilities. But if you prefer to buy Samsung rather than Huawei, the S10 and S10 Plus are fine choices.

Read our full Galaxy S10 Plus review.

3. Xiaomi Mi 9

Xiaomi Mi 9

Xiaomi has been playing catch-up to Huawei for a while, but in the Mi 9 it has produced something special. This is a phone that can compete with Huawei’s best, as well as Samsung and Apple. The same is true for the Mi 9’s cameras.

The triple rear setup is a first for Xiaomi. It’s very similar to the Galaxy’s S10’s with an ultra-wide camera and 2x telephoto, but the 48Mp main sensor steals the show. This works in the same way as Huawei’s 40Mp sensor: it uses a pixel-binning technique where a group of four pixels are treated as one, with colours averaged across them (and other information) to produce a top-quality 12Mp photo.

And you need only look briefly at those photos to see that the Mi 9 is capable of duking it out with the big boys. Exposure is spot on, colours are natural (white balance is generally reliable) and detail is very sharp. It’s only when you really zoom in examine photos in Photoshop that it becomes evident that fine details are slightly soft compared to the P30 Pro, but this is a very minor complaint.

Xiaomi Mi 9

What’s arguably more impressive is that the Mi 9’s photos are better than the iPhone XS’s. Thanks to that high-res sensor there’s more detail and noise is kept under better control, especially in low light.

The Mi 9’s telephoto lens is also better, resolving more detail than Apple’s. We’re particularly impressed by the Mi 9’s portrait mode which does a brilliant job of isolating the subject from the background for convincing bokeh. Plus, you can adjust the effect when editing a photo in the camera roll, just as you can on the iPhone XS.

Another of the Mi 9’s strengths is video. It defaults to the usual 1080p30, but you can change this to 4K30 or even 4K60. You won’t see any messages about features that are disabled when you do this: the stabilisation option remains active even at 4K60.

However, we found that it was pretty ineffective in that mode, but at 4K30 you can expect excellent results: smooth, detailed footage with very little noise. Autofocus performance is exemplary and changes in exposure aren’t jarring. Stereo audio is pretty good as well and the only area the iPhone XS bests the Mi 9 for video is dynamic range. That isn’t to say the Mi 9’s footage has limited shadow and highlight detail: just that the iPhone XS captures more of it.

Xiaomi’s camera app mimics the iPhone’s, but it means it’s intuitive. There are a couple of extra modes, but the Night mode isn’t up to much when it’s really dark. In very low light it will take a long exposure, but the results are unimpressive: it can’t compete with the P30 Pro or Pixel 3. However, in moderately low light, there’s a noticeable improvement as you can see in the shot of our scene-in-a-cupboard where there’s a lot more detail in Batman’s costume and a lot more shadow detail.

Round the front is a 20Mp selfie camera. It captures plenty of detail and even does a good job of portrait photos, again with very good isolation of subject and background.

Overall, the Mi 9’s cameras are highly impressive. The zoom isn’t as capable as the P30 Pro’s and it isn’t as good in very low light but if the Mi 9 takes your fancy (especially its low price), then you won’t be disappointed with its photos or video.

Read our full Xiaomi Mi 9 review.

4. Google Pixel 3

Google Pixel 3

The Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL have the same cameras. Although the hardware isn’t that fancy, with just one rear camera, don’t make the mistake of thinking it’s no good. Far from it. With Google’s ‘Computational Photography’ and the Visual Core chip there’s a lot of clever processing which makes for some great-looking photos and videos.

Starting with the hardware, the main camera still has as 12.2Mp sensor, a Sony IMX363. There’s no laser focus (as the Pixel 2 had) but phase detection is used to good effect: auto focus is still very fast even in dim light.

Software features are the highlights here: Super Res Zoom, Night Sight and Top Shot. Super Res Zoom takes several photos and uses the slight differences along with Google’s computing power to intelligently create pixels for a better-quality photo than mere interpolation would create.

Google Pixel 3

Night Sight works in a similar way to create a correctly exposed image rather than one which is too dark. The exact technique hasn’t been revealed but the results speak for themselves. It’s possible to get some fantastic results in dark conditions so long as there’s no movement in the scene beyond your shaky hands.

Top Shot shoots a series of photos and automatically selects the best one and eliminates any where a person’s eyes were shut or not smiling. And it works really well. It doesn't always trigger, though, even if you think it should have.

In good light, the Pixel 3’s photos are just as amazing as you’d expect. Detail is crisp, white balance excellent and – thanks to HDR+ - dynamic range is impressive. Despite the single camera, portrait shots are very good and the blurry backgrounds look authentic, with subject isolation generally accurate. It is easy to spot errors, though, and a trained eye will immediately know it’s “faked”.

For all the software smarts, the Pixel 3 now lags behind its rivals which are sprouting more lenses than ever before. Super Res Zoom works as advertised, but only to a point. It isn’t quite up to the standard of phones with a 2x optical zoom and certainly can’t compete with 5x periscope lens on the P30 Pro (nor, indeed, the 3x telephoto on Huawei’s P20 Pro and Mate 20 Pro).

And, of course, it lacks a wide-angle lens for landscape shots, so you’ll have to use the panorama mode.

The camera app is a pleasure to use. But the slider doesn't tell you the zoom factor, so we've approximated a 2x zoom, as well as 5x and 10x to match the P30 Pro. In these shots, the deficit becomes obvious where the brickwork of St. Pancras Hotel becomes a blur.

Since the Pixel 3 isn’t noticeably cheaper than its rivals, we can’t help but wish Google had spent the money invested in Super Res Zoom on a second sensor and lens.

In fact, Google did spend go for an extra sensor and lens, but it’s on the front. This is no doubt because plenty of people now take more selfies than anything else. So in addition to the standard selfie camera there’s also a wide-angle one. Both have 8Mp sensors, but with the great image processing that’s enough detail for good-looking photos.

You don’t choose which camera to use: there’s a zoom slider that goes from wide-angle to zoomed-in and portrait mode works at any point in the range. The wide angle setting is great for group photos, but it does make the Pixel 3 better suited to people who prefer to take selfies rather than pictures of others.

Video capture is exactly the same as the Pixel 2, shooting 4K at up to 30fps. Stabilisation is a combination of electronic and optical and works at all resolutions. It’s a shame that 60fps isn’t available at 4K and that Google still hasn’t improved the slo-mo options: you’re still limited to 120fps at 1080p and can only shoot 240fps at 720p. However, the Pixel 3 does gain a flicker sensor which eliminates the shimmering effect you get from indoor videos shot under artificial light.

There are benefits of buying the Pixel 3 including the fact that you get free, unlimited storage on Google Photos for photos and videos at full, original resolution. This lasts until 31 January 2022, and could save you a fair amount on cloud storage.

Although you can criticise Google for certain decisions about the Pixel 3’s cameras and capabilities, the main camera takes outstanding photos. If you don’t want or need the extra cameras and features available on other phones, the Pixel 3 is still a great choice for photography.

Read our full Pixel 3 XL review.

5. iPhone XS / XS Max

Apple iPhone XS

Like Google, Apple improved its phone cameras for the XS and XS Max primarily by using clever software tricks rather than any major hardware updates.

So the arrangement remains the same as on the iPhone X (whose cameras were already very similar to the 7 Plus’s) with a standard and telephoto camera on the rear and a single selfie camera which uses the 3D scanning Face ID system for depth detection for portrait selfies.

One feature not previously available is the upgraded Smart HDR mode which takes many more photos and combines them instantly into an image with excellent dynamic range: you can even take photos with the sun shining behind a subject and still get decent results.

iPhone XS

Video doesn’t quite get HDR, but the ‘extended dynamic range’ still makes a noticeable difference and – as ever for an iPhone – the iPhone XS produces fantastic, stable footage and can shoot at 60fps in 4K, though not with stabilisation at that setting.

Another first for the XS and XS Max was the ability to change the depth of field – the amount of background blur – in portrait photos after you take them. It works well and is certainly nice to have, but as with Smart HDR, isn’t a killer feature. Indeed, if you already have an X or even an 8 Plus, it isn’t worth upgrading just for the XS’s cameras.

There’s no real change in slo-mo capabilities: you get a choice of 240fps or 120fps at 1080p. The difference is that there’s no longer the option of 240fps at 720p.

What you get with the iPhone XS is consistently good photos. Focus, white balance and exposure are dependable, and images have great dynamic range. HDR is used automatically when needed: nine frames are blended near instantaneously. 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.

It’s still a frustration that you can’t change video resolution or frame rate in the camera app, but at least the app itself is exceptionally easy to use.

Where rivals forge ahead of Apple is in low light performance. The XS simply cannot keep pace when it gets dark. There’s no “night” mode and no tricksy software that others use to stabilise long-exposure handheld shots. Maybe we’ll see this in the 2019 iPhone…

So long as you take you photos before it gets really dark, you should be happy enough though. And you might be made happier by using the iPhone XS’s Portrait Lighting effects which work well.

The iPhone XS takes a good portrait photo too. And in general the depth sensing does a great job, but as with every other system out there, it can look fake if wisps of hair are errantly blurred.

When it comes to selfies, Apple improved the portrait mode on the XS and the results are great. It also proves you don’t always need more than a 7Mp sensor for great looking photos.

The iPhone XS and XS Max have great cameras and take excellent photos in just about all conditions. It’s true that they’re not the best cameras out there, and they struggle in low light, but if you must have iOS rather than Android on your phone, they’re the best you’ll find currently.

Read our full iPhone XS Max review.

Click here for the best Samsung deals and Samsung voucher codes.