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Shootouts

Shootout: The very best cameras on flagship smartphones today

By Liu Hongzuo - 25 Jul 2021

Main camera performance: colour, detail, noise, HDR, and the little things

Main Camera Performance

Instead of running pages and pages of photos where we discuss which phone has better colour reproduction and which has better HDR etc., we'll judge it as a full package. After all, what's the point of having a phone camera that has 100% colour accuracy but the detail reproduction of a cave painting?

As such, we'll look at each main camera's overall performance: colour capturing, sharpness and artefacts, noise handling, detail granularity, exposure handling, you know the works. The subject of this main camera test is a randomly selected sky garden in Singapore, with our backs to the sun, as seen below. 

Sample of Main Camera Performance test.

For each phone, we'll show the full still image it took followed by actual pixel size close-up crops to illustrate what we liked and didn't like in each handset's main camera performance. The winner(s) of this specific section is at the bottom. Do note that HDR mode is enabled for all.

 

Full image

Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max.

At a glance, the iPhone 12 Pro Max prioritises colourisation and shading. You can easily tell how well the sky garden scene was captured in this shot alone. What stood out the most was the iPhone's ability in reproducing light condition very accurately with bright highlights preserved - you get the sense that this photo was taken later in the day, which was exactly when this test was conducted.

 

Huawei P40 Pro+.

On the Huawei P40 Pro+, the main camera's peformance doesn't quite have the dynamic range or realism seen in the iPhone 12 Pro Max earlier. That said, the P40 Pro+'s attempt is nonetheless colourful and detailed, if a little washed out.

 

Oppo Find X2 Pro.

The Oppo Find X2 Pro's main camera performance has contrast handling slightly ahead of Huawei's P40 Pro+'s, but its saturation falls a little behind the iPhone 12 Pro Max. Of course, judging solely by the shot like this isn't going to clue us in on the quality, so we'll take a closer look later.

 

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra.

There's no doubt that the S21 Ultra does an excellent job at capturing the scene with the main camera. In fact, it looks like it's on par with the iPhone 12 Pro Max. When placed side by side, Apple still edges out a little ahead simply because of its aggressive digital processing, which gave the bushes and the brick lines more definition. However, the differences in detail (based on the whole image) isn't significant enough for a tie-breaker.

 

Xiaomi Mi 10T Pro.

Impressive. You'd think just because Xiaomi puts a lower sticker price on the phone would mean lower image quality. Xiaomi defies those expectations by bringing performance that's good enough to compete with the likes of Samsung and Apple. But, let's be honest: it's also clear that the other four phones have a better handle on contrast, dynamic range, shadows, and highlights, even if Xiaomi can deliver colourisation that's on par.

 

Image Crop 1: centre, colour, contrast, range, accuracy

Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max.

While its detail accuracy could use more work, the iPhone 12 Pro Max's ability to bring out highlights and shadows makes for stunning images. In this crop (at actual pixel size), you can tell that the iPhone wasn't only concerned with colour accuracy, but also the light it relied on for this shot.

 

Huawei P40 Pro+.

The P40 Pro+ is arguably better at retaining the details (thanks to its large 50MP sensor), even if it's not the best at faithfully reproducing the dynamic range of the sky garden. Here, it's far easier to tell apart every blade and petal, and even the tiny yellow flowers at the bottom seem to be more obvious than iPhone's attempt. While we appreciate the brighter image, it's not an accurate representation of the scene.

 

Oppo Find X2 Pro.

From this vantage point, it's clear that the stabilisation on the other two phones are a touch better than the Oppo's, but the Find X2 Pro is very capable of getting colours in nicely. The dynamic range is also slightly better than Huawei's, while not as aggressive as Apple's. That said, Oppo has gone to great lengths for image processing, and artefacts can be found along the edges of objects, like the jagged edges of the lampheads, and the artefacts surrounding the little metal railing peeking out of the bottom left. These flaws are less pronounced on the iPhone 12 Pro Max. 

 

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra.

Even when up close, it's clear that Apple and Samsung's dynamic range treatment is really similar. There's nothing here that the Apple also didn't offer, right down to the jagged lines around the top of the lampposts. If anything, the greenery here seems a little more lush, while the Apple one makes the plants look a little drier. That, however, could just be a shifting of clouds and a trick of light.

 

Xiaomi Mi 10T Pro.

In the center of the image, Xiaomi seems to have a better handle on detail than the Huawei. Of all five, Huawei's colour management is the most washed out, but Xiaomi trails behind closely - it's superceded by the superior colours and sharpness on the Find X2 Pro, and Oppo already struggles to match the dynamic range and sharpness offered by Apple and Samsung.

 

Image Crop 2: sky, buildings, digital processing

Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max.

This cropping of the image (at actual pixel size) perfectly captures what we like and don't like about the iPhone 12 Pro Max's main camera. A lesser camera would simply ignore the clouds and paint the sky in one tone, but the iPhone brought the definition out with its computational photography magic. On the other hand, these digital artefacts are very pronounced when it comes to detail-heavy bits, like the leaves to the right.

 

Huawei P40 Pro+.

Huawei's P40 Pro+'s digital artefacts are less aggressive than Apple's. The halo effect is less pronounced around the greens, but it's also less discerning with shadows and highlights. P40 Pro+ barely even tries to retain the lines on the building.

 

Oppo Find X2 Pro.

Oppo brought out pretty impressive detail on the clouds itself, but Apple still holds the lead in the sky's colourisation. The leaves have fewer artefacts this time, but that came at a price - the building to the left has a few black lines missing towards the bottom. It's nowhere as bad as Huawei's detail retention, though.

 

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra.

Looking at the greenery, Samsung's digital processing is very slightly less aggressive, than iPhone's, but not enough to see a significant difference in artefacts produced. It does a better job than iPhone at getting the middle stalks nicely, but it sacrifices detail if the subject is further away - like the clouds and the lines in the building to the left. That's another tie with the Apple phone here.

 

Xiaomi Mi 10T Pro.

When it came to the skies, Xiaomi did a little better than Oppo, but it had even more aggressive digital processing as seen in greens. Despite all that effort, it didn't have the great dynamic range offered by the iPhone's interpretation of the clouds.

 

Image Crop 3: brick floor, stone wall, grass clumps

Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max.

Here's another great example of the iPhone's main camera at work. See how the brick lines and the low walls are so detailed that they aren't only a single colour throughout? The same cannot be said if the patterns are more complicated, such as the little tufts of grass between bricks.

Let's look at how the others fare before we go any further.

 

Huawei P40 Pro+.

Huawei's digital processing also lends itself to a softer overall shot. It's almost as sharp as the iPhone's attempt (since we chose the same focus area for all attempts), but you can see how P40 Pro+ here doesn't quite bring out the scuff marks like Apple did for the low grey walls.

 

Oppo Find X2 Pro.

Arguably, both the P40 Pro+ and iPhone 12 Pro Max did better in sharpness here, even if we liked how little processing was done to the tuft of grass on the floor.

So far, the iPhone is in the lead with its excellent dynamic range and colourisation, and better overall sharpness, followed closely behind by the saturation and detail retention capabilities of the Find X2 Pro. Huawei did put up a really good fight, but it's lack of dynamic range really shows. How will they all look next to the following two contenders?

 

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra.

The differences Samsung has against the Apple phone here are imperceptible. If you compare the S21 Ultra to the other two Chinese phones, sure, Samsung does a better job at bringing out the markings on the granite low wall. It is, however, equally capable when you compare it to the iPhone 12 Pro Max - even the same two tufts of grass had very similar treatment (and artefacts).

That puts Apple and Samsung tied in the top spot for main camera performance. What about Xiaomi?

 

Xiaomi Mi 10T Pro.

Frankly, we'd rate this section of the image crop on par with the Apple and Samsung rivals given that it has a great overall handle on contrast, lines, shading, colours, and details. However, the other two phones have outstanding, and more consistent reproduction, not to mention better overall sharpness than Xiaomi's take.

 

Main Camera winner

Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max and Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra, tied. Very good effort by Xiaomi Mi 10T Pro especially given the significantly lower sticker price, but we're looking for the best main camera performance, not the best value-for-money shooter. Huawei's photos may look impressive on its own displays and when observed in a vacuum (not next to any other phone), but they look good because they are excellent at digital processing, not necessarily because their main camera takes better photos. That's not to say that the other non-winners are bad. Heck, these are the best options among all recent phone models, so it's no surprise that any of their main cameras can satisfy the average phone user. We are of course nitpicking so that we can tell you who's the best of them.

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