We keep hearing about how phone cameras are now challenging DSLRs. While we do not think that is happening (hey, this is a travel site, we know what a DSLR can do), we do feel that there are phones with cameras that deliver enough photographic magic to tempt you to leave your basic point and shoot camera behind. Yes, they do cost a bomb, but then they deliver a performance that will make most eyes pop:
iPhone XS/XS Max – (Still) The Boss!
Well, this is perhaps the most popular camera in the world. And with the XS and its Max cousin, the iPhone adds to its photographic muscle. On paper, the dual 12 megapixel cameras (one with f/1.8 and the other with f/2.4 aperture) might not sound too impressive, but in terms of sheer performance, they deliver perhaps the most realistic colours and detail that we have seen from any phone cameras. Yes, their low light performance is not the greatest when compared with some of the devices in this list (especially the Pixel 3), and their portrait mode can be a little hit and miss even now, but on the flip side, they are blazingly fast, their 4K video is easily the best, and you can be assured of amazing consistency, combined with an easy to use interface. Even the selfies get some very close Portrait Lighting effects, which can be rather cool. The closest thing to “what you see is what you shoot” in the phone camera kingdom.
Google Pixel 3/3 XL – Unreally Good!
Going by specs, this device’s camera should not even be in the running. The Pixel 3 and 3 XL are the only ones in this list to come with single main cameras – and that single camera too does not seem groundbreaking on paper: a 12.2 megapixel sensor with f/1.8 aperture. However, blended with some of Google’s software magic and machine learning, the latest Pixel delivers images that are easily the richest in terms of detail, sometimes showing us things we did not know existed. Yes, its colour handling is not the greatest (we think it favours the greys a little) and its software processing is VERY aggressive, leading to almost unreal images, but the big thing is that the images are often unreal in a very good way. Low light performance and portrait mode is close to exceptional and among the best we have seen — even on selfies (where the Pixel DOES have dual cameras – 8 megapixel each). The phone to have if you simply want great pictures. Even if they do seem to look a whole lot better than the subject itself.
Huawei P20 Pro – original triple camera master!
Some might get surprised at seeing this veteran (it was released in early 2018) in this line up, but then that simply shows how timelessly good the Huawei P20 Pro is. The phone made headlines for its use of three cameras on the back, but these were not paper tigers – the combination of a 40 megapixel (yes!) main sensor, 20 megapixel monochrome sensor, and an 8 megapixel telephoto meant that you could get amazing images that were right in point and shoot camera territory, even delivering 3X zoom (that is about as much as you can get on some Sony RX100 models). The Kirin 970 chip that does all the work behind the camera is beginning to show signs of ageing (there is the odd lag creeping in), but the P20 Pro still remains capable of taking some amazing pictures, with Leica optics delivering some stunning detail. There are a truckful of software tweaks and shooting options available — we recommend using monochrome mode too — for experiencing sheer black and white magic. We would however advise turning off the AI Mode as it tends to oversaturate images — the camera also generally tends to make reds and blues look a lot more intense than they actually are. And well, the 24 megapixel selfie snapper can make you look a little too pink at times.
Samsung Galaxy Note 9 – always note-worthy pictures
It was a close call between going for Samsung’s Galaxy S9+ released earlier this year or the newer Galaxy Note 9 from the Korean giant. Both have essentially similar rear camera set ups – dual 12 megapixel cameras, one wide and one telephoto – but perhaps the slightly newer software gives the Note 9 the edge. The S9+ was the first phone camera to let you change the aperture manually and the result are some amazing portrait and low light snaps. At f/1.5, the Note 9 has one of the largest apertures you can find on a phone camera, and the high quality sensors on the Note 9 are terrific at capturing colour and detail. A note (pun intended): do view the results on a display other than that of the phone itself, as that tends to brighten up colours to an unrealistic extent. This is perhaps the best camera for those who love taking long shots of landscapes and the like, because of its handling of colour and detail.
Huawei Mate 20 Pro: the new kid on the block
This phone would not have been in this list a couple of weeks ago, but makes it thanks to its recent launch in India. Although it belongs to a different range, it is seen as the spiritual successor of the Huawei P20 Pro, as it also sports three cameras on the back. However, these are not only arranged differently but are actually a very different kettle of fish from that worthy — while the cameras are still a 40 megapixel main sensor, with a 20 megapixel secondary sensor and an 8 megapixel telephoto, the optical zoom is now at a very impressive 5X, and with a newer processor and additional AI smarts, a new level of phone photography seems to have been unlocked. Yes, Leica optics are still there, although this time there is no dedicated monochrome (black and white) sensor. The 24 megapixel selfie camera is also a very good performer. AI performance is still not entirely trustworthy but the number of shooting options on this device would even delight hardcore DSLR users. As would the results, although it does err towards over saturation (like a lot of snappers from Chinese brands).