One of the interesting things we noticed when we tuned into the big Galaxy Note9 launch in New York last week was how little Samsung actually talked about the camera. There was no DxOMark score, no huge segment comparing it and its competitors, nor was there much emphasis on the handset’s camera hardware.
Was Samsung unconfident with the Galaxy Note9’s camera performance? Does this best-Note-ever actually have a sub-par camera in its class? Does the Note9’s camera actually suck?
Harrowing times, I know. But we thought we’d find out for ourselves by pitting the Galaxy Note9 with the best smartphone cameras we could find in our smartphone stable. Here’s how the Note9 stacks up to the best.
Before we begin, some background. For this camera comparison, we pitted the Galaxy Note9 against Huawei’s P20 Pro and its triple camera setup, as well as the best from camp Apple — the iPhone X. Those were the best smartphone cameras we still had with us so that’s what we’re going with.
Still, it’s not like these aren’t some of the best smartphone cameras in the market. The P20 Pro has the highest DxOMark smartphone rating ever and legions of die hard fans still swear by the iPhone X’s true-to-life images.
With the contenders established, we took a train down to Masjid Jamek (which, by the way, looks really beautiful now since I was last there maybe half a decade ago) and drew up a series of challenges. We would be testing the three smartphones in these categories:
5. Low light
6. Portrait Mode
7. Portrait Selfie
All the shots you’ll see were taken hand-held with the settings left in Auto. The only time we tweaked the settings was to set the P20 Pro in its dedicated HDR mode because the phone didn’t have an Auto HDR setting, and that’s it.
Let’s take a look at what we’ve got.
Be sure to click on each image to view its full resolution.
This test was designed to see how well these handsets could capture details. At first glance, the iPhone X’s photo looks the best. Thanks to its saturated colours and higher contrast that really brings out the definition in the bricks. But if you zoom into the arch, you’ll notice that the spaces between the while tiles aren’t very well defined.
If you jump over to the Note9’s photo, you’ll see that those lines are much clearer. The bricks in the wall are also very well defined, leading to a very crisp image overall. It is a little less saturated and more muted when put next to the iPhone X’s photo, but it’s not devoid of colour.
However, if we’re talking about post processing, Huawei’s P20 Pro does it best (or worst, depending on who you ask). Despite this, the image itself isn’t particularly sharp. You see even less of the details in the arch than you do on the iPhone and Note9, and if you mosey your eyes over to the bricks, they look pretty soft too.
As a result, I’d give this win to the Galaxy Note9 with the iPhone X coming in a close second.
HDR, or High Dynamic Range looks at how well a smartphone camera can capture details in both the highlights and shadows. Ideally, you should see a well-lit image with good details in the sky as well as in the shadows near the trees in our test shot.
On the iPhone X, you can see the blue sky and the details of the clouds despite the bright sun being in the way. The image is pretty well exposed without too much of a sacrifice when it comes to colour saturation. That said, the image definitely loses details when you look at the shadows around the trees.
Samsung’s Galaxy Note9 does a better job in the shadows while also retaining the details in the sky. The image itself is also exposed a little better than the iPhone X, but you can see a little more processing going on. There’s also a red tinge that looks like it could be caused by lens flare.
If we’re talking about processing though, the P20 Pro definitely produces the most processed image. The image is highly saturated with lots of sharpening and tweaking of contrast. However, if we’re judging it based on HDR performance, the P20 Pro falls flat here. The sky is completely blown out and the shadows are also very dark.
So, in this test, I’d give the win to the Galaxy Note9, with the iPhone X taking a close second.
Now for the zoom test as all three phones feature some kind of optical zooming. For the first stop, both the iPhone X and Galaxy Note9 are capable of using their secondary telephoto lenses for 2X optical zoom. Huawei’s P20 Pro, on the other hand, gives you a little more reach with its 3X optical zoom.
All three phones do pretty well at this first stop, producing sharp images with no noticeable loss in quality. However, the P20 Pro’s photo is a little over exposed and the white balance is a little off.
Then, we punched all the way in to 10X and the difference is immediately obvious. Huawei’s P20 Pro produces the clearest image here, as the Note9 and iPhone X both appear soft around the edges.
Add that to the fact that the P20 Pro also has a third stop at 5X thanks to its hybrid zoom and it becomes the obvious winner here.
Macro was a difficult one for the iPhone X and the Huawei P20 Pro because both handsets struggled to pull focus on the subject. The Galaxy Note9, had no such problems and could reliably focus on the tiny flower.
I also think that the Note9 has the most pleasant shot here, with nice bokeh and a very sharp point of focus. Although the image is a little saturated, my vote still goes to the Note9 thanks in part to how well it pulled focus.
Low-light tends to be the hardest test for smartphones mostly because these devices tend to come with very small sensors and small sensors don’t capture light as well as big ones do. However, some manufacturers have come up with creative ways to work around these problems. Samsung’s Galaxy Note9, for example, has a variable aperture on their main shooter that can switch between f/2.4 and f/1.5 depending on lighting conditions (smaller number means larger aperture which means it lets more light in), while the P20 Pro uses AI.
Just looking at the images, I think its fairly obvious which smartphone took the best photo here. Yes, the Huawei P20 Pro’s image is a little over processed for my liking, but there’s no denying how amazing the image looks considering it was shot on a smartphone. There’s virtually no noise in the sky, details are crisp and there’s even a gradient in the background that I couldn’t see with my own eyes even though I was there taking the photo.
The iPhone X and Note9 simply can’t compete here. Easy win for the Huawei P20 Pro and its almost magical Night Mode.
6. Portrait Mode
Now, it’s time for Portrait Mode and we’ll start with the main camera. While the iPhone X and Galaxy Note9 use telephoto lenses for their portrait mode images, the Huawei P20 Pro does not, hence the slightly different composition.
But I think that’s the least of the P20 Pro’s problems as the handsets aggressive AI overdoes the post processing. It even added a slight vignetting to the image which I’m definitely not a fan of. The Galaxy Note9 and iPhone X definitely has a more flattering angle because the longer lens doesn’t distort my face as much (notice my nose is much smaller).
That said, I think the iPhone X captures my skin tone the most accurately in that lighting condition and has the most pleasant bokeh of the bunch. I will say that I’m impressed how well these phones have gotten at edge detection, but since there can only be one winner, I pick the iPhone X.
7. Portrait Selfie
Flip over to the selfie portrait and I think the iPhone turns Alex a little too red here. The Note9 has the most accurate edge-detection and I also think it produces the best-looking image. Huawei’s P20 Pro overdoes it on the beautification and Alex’s skin tone is completely off.
Definitely a win for the Note9 here.
At the end of the test, our final scoreboard stands at 4 points to the Galaxy Note9, 2 points to the Huawei P20 Pro and 1 point to the iPhone X. However, the actual result isn’t really as binary as it seems. For a device that’s due for a refresh very soon, with likely an even better camera array, the iPhone X is still pulling in close second place finishes, losing out to the Note9 by only a hair in some instances.
Huawei’s P20 Pro is also a stellar performer and I believe this will be the phone for those of you who like that over-edited look but don’t actually know/have the resources to edit photos. The photos out of that phone are “great for the Gram”, is what I’m saying. Plus, that Night Mode is unbeatable at least in the smartphone realm.
However, my choice for the best smartphone camera in this test has to go to the Samsung Galaxy Note9, though like I said before, it was a very close race. I like the way the images from the Note9 a little more because I think it strikes a nice balance between processed and completely raw. I can still push it a little in post if I want to, but if I don’t the photos also look great out of camera. That said, I think my favourite thing about the Note9 is its camera experience — it’s awesome. This phone is fast to launch its camera, fast to pull focus and fast to take the shot — which means it’s something you can rely on when you need to.
We also did a video test for these handsets that you can watch in our camera comparison video. The results may surprise you.
In any case, which of these phones did you think took the best photos? Let me know in the comments below!