Generally speaking, it's good photo-taking practice to have sufficient sunlight illuminating your scene. That is a luxury, given how plenty of interesting stuff happens indoors too. Low-light performance is an important aspect of smartphone cameras since it correlates to shooting indoors - you're not going to have amazing staycation photos if your phone's camera cannot see well without the power of the sun.
How each phone manages to shoot well boils down to its hardware and software, so we're judging based on the end-result.
Our venue of choice is a public space that's indoors with really sexy mood lighting. That's right - a library. This shooting angle tested the phones' low-light performance to their limits - there's sunlight streaming in from the outside, while the majority of the indoors was dimly lit, with certain highlight lamps or trinkets about that grabs your attention. A good image reproduction would factor both bright and dim areas without losing the sense of being indoor and capturing the mood as it's meant to be.
Again, photos are arranged by phone model. The full images comes first, followed by interesting areas of discussion, and winner(s) at the end.
Even without blowing out and overexposing the shot, the iPhone 12 Pro Max was able to bring out the little differences in the dark (check out the black ceiling). The little lights around the '2021' display set could've been a touch brighter for greater effect, but it was able to capture the mood and interior of the library very well. We'll have to check other attempts next to know if Apple was the best among the five, though.
The Huawei's low-light performance is on par with Apple's, with only one difference. The colour balance is slightly off, with a little more emphasis on reds. This is apparent when you check out one of the books at the display and the wooden panelled ceilings on the top left. If you want to know if the book should have actually been this red, simply refer to the AED logo in both photos. With this, the Apple is ahead of Huawei by virtue of better colour accuracy, even though both phones are excellent at low-light shots.
While this is an excellent image, contrast handling on the Oppo Find X2 Pro is nowhere as precise in capturing the mood as the iPhone 12 Pro Max or P40 Pro+. Colour accuracy is also a little more aggressive towards different shades of red, likely due to the darker contrast at play.
There's a lot more going on in the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra than it appears at first glance. With moss green and stone grey carpets, neutral-looking pillars, and a black ceiling, the image shouldn't have the pink tint as shown. Yet, the Samsung was able to interpret the colours of the books on display just fine. We chalk it up to its computational photography being slightly more inconsistent than the rest, with the sunlight influenced by the red bricked walls streaming in. We liked these details, but it's not consistent with the naked eye or the iPhone's approximation.
Xiaomi overcompensated for this low-light shot, which resulted in a significantly darker overall contrast. It's also nowhere as good at bringing out the details in the black ceiling. It is, however, more colour accurate than its Android counterparts, given that it lacks the overly pinkish tint in the other contenders.
Among our five contenders, we'd hand the best low-light performance over to the Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max for having the best balance of attributes. If you simply scrolled down to see this section's winner without giving these shots a once-over, it's easy to miss the minutiae. Apple came out ahead despite the other Android phones doing certain things a little better (for instance, less noise in the Huawei or Samsung's brighter and more detailed interpretation). That's because it managed to get the colours, contrast balance, and detail out without leaning too far out for one aspect, and overcompensating as a result. If the differences were even smaller, we'd look into the actual pixel size for even better comparisons, but that wasn't necessary with the iPhone 12 Pro Max showing us how it's done.