Whether you end up loving a phone or simply living with it often boils down to two factors. Does the battery last a long time and can it take a good picture?
We are looking at the latter today, and from a slightly different perspective than that to which you may be accustomed. The internet is full of technical comparisons of expensive phones performed by tech nerds. Plenty of them is useful too. But what does a professional photographer who won’t get hung up on techy extras think?
How we tested
WIRED sent five of the best phones of 2020 to Rebecca Scheinberg, a still life and portraiture photographer. These phones are the Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra, Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max, OnePlus 8 Pro, Oppo Find X2 Pro and the Google Pixel 5.
Scheinberg took them out for a shoot in a not-very-sunny Norwich to use the phones as you might, day-to-day. She also tested their low-light performance using an LED light to bring the level of available light to near-zero in a controlled environment back at the studio.
The phones have 21 cameras between them, cost collectively as much as a solid house deposit from the 90s, and all take great photos. But which is the best? In 2018 Huawei’s P20 Pro won this test, we crowned the Pixel 4 the winner in 2019. It’s time for a change.
No need for a drumroll or tense reality TV pause. Scheinberg picked the iPhone 12 Pro Max as the best phone camera in 2020.
Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max
Main camera: 12MP | Aperture: f/1.7 | OIS: Yes
Telephoto: 12MP | Aperture: f/3.4 | OIS: Yes | Zoom: 2.5x optical
Ultra-wide: 12MP | Aperture: f/2.4 | OIS: No | FOV: 120°
“I think it handles colour really well and challenging lighting. It has a lot of detail even in low light settings,” she says. We ran a similar phone camera test around this last time last year with the same photographer, and Scheinberg was impressed by the improvements made in this generation. Last year the iPhone 11 Pro was beaten by the Pixel 4, but this time the iPhone is the front runner.
“Apple really upped the quality of the image in terms of the detail they can capture, the colour accuracy, as well as their overall ‘Apple gloss’”.
This “gloss” tends to exhibit as a warmer colour temperature in images. In this case it’s a stylistic choice rather than a failure to make the photos accurate. A warm photo done right is like a warm bath. What’s not to like?
Scheinberg also ranked the iPhone 12 Pro Max as having one of best interfaces, for its direct and intuitive style, and is a fan of the new “view outside of the frame” mode. “If you’re on the standard lens you can see the option of what it might look like if you go wide to either side like it’s sort of a preview. It’s great because you can focus on the composition of the image but can also see the potential of what you might have [using the ultra-wide FoV]”.
In the camera app, the parts outside of the usual 4:3 preview show up with a translucent black layer over them. There’s no confusing them for part of the standard capture, but you can also see objects just out of the frame.
The iPhone 12 Pro Max is an all-round hit for tasteful processing, detail and general image quality, including at its 3x zoom setting. But it is not perfect.
In Scheinberg’s low-light testing the iPhone’s images didn’t quite have the contrast of the Pixel 5 or Galaxy Note 20 Ultra. “The detail is fine but the image suffers because it’s greyed-out. It has pulled up the blacks, which flattens the image,” says Scheinberg.
The iPhone 12 Pro Max’s ultra-wide camera is also surprisingly weak when compared directly to those of the Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra and OnePlus 8 Pro. While the image looks good zoomed-out, with the same kind of tasteful processing seen in the main camera, it just doesn’t have the same detail as those top performers.
Another photographer-friendly feature was just rolling out in beta form as we ran the test too, ProRAW. This is Apple’s take on RAW photography, which normally leaves you with an image before noise reduction and other core processing as been applied. ProRAW incorporates this information, plus the processing profile Apple would apply. It can act as a starting point for your manual image tweaks, netting you the best aspects of JPEG and RAW. Well, apart from the small file size of a JPEG.
This is the first time an iPhone has won our pro photographer group test. The iPhone 12 Pro Max scoops it thanks to improvements to Apple’s already-great colour processing, a big boost to low-light performance and a new zoom that keeps pace with all but the best-equipped Androids.
Pros: Tasteful processing and colour; intuitive software
Cons: Ultra-wide camera could be improved; a tendency to raise blacks in low light
Google Pixel 5
Best for life-like colour
Main camera: 12MP | Aperture: f/1.7 | OIS: Yes
Ultra-wide: 16MP | Aperture: f/2.2 | OIS: No | FOV: 107°
Fans of the Pixel series will not be surprised to hear what our professional photographer thought of the Pixel 5. Google has taken an admirably consistent approach to its phones’ cameras for the last few years.
Pixel 5, like its predecessors, puts zero clutter between you and the fundamentals of taking a photo. “It’s really user friendly and seems to have the least amount of options,” says Scheinberg. “There was nothing fancy, but I quite like that there is a level while you’re taking photos, which was great, and makes composing an image a bit easier.”
Its colour accuracy is best-in-class, and this became particularly noticeable in low light. “The Pixel fares the best in terms of colour accuracy and detail across the board,” Scheinberg says of the phone’s low-light test results.
The zoom, however, is a weak point. Google has been very slow to add additional cameras to its phones. Last year’s Pixel 4 phones got a 2x zoom. And instead of adding to that line-up with a third this year, Google swapped out that zoom lens for a 16-megapixel ultra-wide. “It didn’t feel like it was particularly gaining that much more information [in the zoom mode]”, says Scheinberg. “It felt more that it was just digitally cropped in.”
Google does use a little more than just simple digital crop-based techniques in its high-end phones. It introduced a feature called Super Res Zoom in 2018. This uses a phone’s optical image stabilisation to shift the camera’s view, just fractionally, while capturing multiple exposures in order to emulate the detail of a higher-resolution sensor. The results can usually compete with a reasonable 2x zoom, but not the high-end 3x and 5x zooms we see in these other top-end phones.
The Pixel 5’s ultra-wide camera looks poor next to those of the Apple, Samsung and OnePlus phones too. Shots may have that characteristic Pixel punch, but up close detail and clarity belong to a much lower league.
Pros: Class-leading colour fidelity; simple and clear interface
Cons: Relatively weak ultra-wide; zoom mode can’t keep up with the rest
Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra
Best for detail across its three fields of view
Main camera: 108MP | Aperture: f/1.8 | OIS: Yes
Telephoto: 12MP | Aperture: f/3 | OIS: Yes | Zoom: 5x optical
Ultra-wide: 12MP | Aperture: f/2.2 | OIS: No | FOV: 120°
Samsung once had a reputation for cramming its phones full of software extras, to the detriment of the experience, particularly for beginners. While it hasn’t given up on this features obsession in the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra, Samsung has at least found a way to add them without seeming like clutter. “It just seemed really easy to use, which is really important,” Scheinberg says. “It’s about being able to take an image in the moment rather than it having all the bells and whistles.”
The “bells and whistles” are still there, but these days they are subcutaneous. Best Photo is one example, and a model we tested. This asks you to pan the camera around the scene. The Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra then captures a whole stack of shots and picks the ones its little AI brain likes the most.
It chose a rather interesting shot. Rather than picking one where the horizon was level, Best Shot’s choice was off-axis and seemed to have been chosen for its interesting geometry. The image was also, no surprise, highly processed. Samsung also leans a little too heavily on image fiddling in its standard Auto mode.
“It automatically picks up that you’re looking at, like “nature” or water. But when it recognised “nature”, the greens were slightly too green,” says Scheinberg. “So while it does a good job of assessing what your subject is and applying an automatic grade to the image, I think it goes a little too far.” This is probably the most common critique of Samsung’s best camera phones, that their colour tones are just a little too enthusiastic.
It was clear in the night mode too, where the colour and contrast are hyped to produce an image that seems more powerful and detailed. The Galaxy Note 20 Ultra’s dark shot looked punchier than the iPhone’s but less natural than the Pixel 5. The Note 20 Ultra has the greatest perception of detail, whether that is down to a liberal approach to contrast, or because the hardware is simply better: this varies depending on the kind of shot you take. Its higher-end hardware comes into play in the ultra-wide camera and zoom.
Samsung’s Galaxy Note 20 Ultra has the best ultra-wide camera of the bunch, challenged only by the OnePlus 8 Pro. The iPhone and Pixel 5 don’t get close in terms of detail retrieval.
Its zoom has a powerful periscope lens too. In a direct comparison with the Oppo Find X2 Pro, the other periscope phone here, the Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra’s images once again exhibit far greater contrast. This is a curated effect, not a sign of better raw image quality, but sometimes a useful one.
Pros: Great detail across three fields of view; good low-light performance
Cons: Has a habit of oversaturating colour; can manipulate contrast too much at times
OnePlus 8 Pro
The best OnePlus camera yet, with an excellent ultra-wide
Main camera: 48MP | Aperture: f/1.8 | OIS: Yes
Telephoto: 12MP | Aperture: f/2.4 | OIS: Yes | Zoom: 3x hybrid
Ultra-wide: 48MP | Aperture: f/2.2 | OIS: No | FOV: 116°
OnePlus phones tend to fall into a misty middle-ground in these high-end comparisons. Tight budgets mean OnePlus cannot usually afford to fit in as impressive hardware as the competition. It has arguably happened again, but this is a comfortable place for the OnePlus 8 Pro to sit.
The OnePlus 8 Pro costs £300 less than the base iPhone 12 Pro Max, and does not use the aggressive colour and contrast boosting techniques of the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra. “The colour held up well with the OnePlus. It wasn’t too saturated, not too much contrast. But I don’t mind that because that maintains detail,” says Scheinberg.
Its 3x “optical” zoom uses an 8-megapixel crop of a 12-megapixel sensor to make its images, so does not have a true 3x lens. But its results in daylight are comparable with the iPhone’s, and clearly beat the Pixel 5’s.
The OnePlus 8 Pro also has the second-best ultra-wide camera of the group, with results second only to the far more expensive Galaxy Note 20 Ultra. This is because OnePlus really went to town on the sensor here, using the same Sony IMX586 seen in the OnePlus 8T’s main camera. OnePlus must get a good deal on these IMX586 components, given it has used them in its phones since the OnePlus 7.
The OnePlus 8 Pro’s low light performance lands a little behind the iPhone, Samsung and Pixel. But not too far. This is OnePlus’s best camera array to date, by some margin. The newer OnePlus 8T is not even close, thanks to the OnePlus 8 Pro’s superior hardware across the board.
Pros: Decent colour reproduction; great ultra-wide camera
Cons: Solid zoom; mid-table low light performance
Oppo Find X2 Pro
Not perfect, but a more affordable route to true 5x zoom
Main camera: 48MP | Aperture: f/1.7 | OIS: Yes
Telephoto: 13MP | Aperture: f/3 | OIS: Yes | Zoom: 5x optical
Ultra-wide: 48MP | Aperture: f/2.2 | OIS: No | FOV: 120°
On paper, the Oppo Find X2 Pro looks a strong contender. It has three zero-filler cameras including a 5x periscope zoom. Oppo only officially arrived in the UK in early 2019, despite already being huge in other countries. This phone was largely successful in establishing Oppo as a real alternative to Samsung for high-end buyers. That was the Find X2 Pro’s job, and it performed it with style.
But our professional photographer was not too keen on its software. “I found there were too many buttons to press. It wasn’t an organic interface,” Scheinberg says. “Pixels and iPhones have a more intuitive UI. And that was great because then I could focus on taking the photo rather than which exact zoom I want to use.”
And despite a powerful zoom, the real-world results are mixed. “Lots of different lenses. Lots of different focus options, but the quality was so poor when you zoomed in,” says Scheinberg. The Oppo Find X2 Pro has a 10x zoom preset, and lets you “manually” zoom in all the way to 60x. Images look terrible at those ultra-extended fields of view and tend to undermine the very solid image quality available at 5x.
The Oppo may not have quite stood up to the top-ranked phones in this comparison, but Oppo takes a much less heavy-handed approach to process than Samsung, which many will appreciate.
The Oppo Find X2 Pro has several of the right elements, but they don’t come together to create quite as satisfying a camera as the very best. For example, comparing the 5x image shot by the Samsung and Oppo, the Find X2 Pro has much less pronounced contrast manipulation. You end up with a shot that looks more like one taken with a dedicated camera. But this relaxed approach does not hold up so well when you go beyond the natural limits of the hardware, to software-led “hybrid” or digital zoom.
The Oppo Find X2 Pro also took the weakest night-style photos, exhibiting the least detail. And its ultra-wide camera is beaten by those of the iPhone, Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra and OnePlus 8 Pro, if not the significantly softer Pixel 5.
Now it’s time for some important context. The Oppo Find X2 Pro originally cost around £1,200, in early 2020. However, it has since dropped to £900 (and down to £799 in Amazon’s Xmas sales). This makes it one of the most affordable phones with a 5x “periscope” optical zoom.
Pros: Periscope zoom; a natural approach to contrast
Cons: Cluttered camera UI; zoom quality falls apart beyond native lens FoV; low light images don’t match the rest