So who makes the best smartphone camera? Here’s what you picked.
We’ve long run camera comparisons on our own, but it’s hard to remove our own biases — and frankly, it’s just our opinion. With some new high-profile phones on the market, we thought it was again time to pit these cameras against each other and see who came out on top. So we showed you 20 sets of photos taken by four unspecified phones, stripping out all identifying data and presented in a randomized-on-load order, and asked you to pick the best. We did this so you’d judge the photos on their quality alone.
With a wide range of photos, it’s time to determine the best.
According to your total of nearly 53,000 votes, the best smartphone camera belongs to the Samsung Galaxy S8.
Some of the competition was incredibly close, though. Just half a percent separated the Galaxy S8 from the second-place Google Pixel, and the LG G6 was only a few percent behind them. It’s close enough that with a different set of photos we may well have ended up with a different winning trio. The fourth phone, the Apple iPhone 7, was a distant fourth (though, admittedly, the oldest of the bunch).
Why these phones?
We had one criteria for picking phones: the newest and best modern smartphone cameras you can buy. We picked what we expected would be the top four, informed by our use of some phones over the past several months that have held up well (Pixel, iPhone 7) and the new blockbuster releases (Galaxy S8, LG G6).
The iPhone and Google Pixel were obvious choices. The Pixel has been crowned the champ in many comparisons, and there’s no denying that it’s a really great camera. And while the iPhone 7 fared poorly in our last comparison just after its release, it is still the single best-selling phone on the planet; it’d be silly not to include it.
Both the LG G6 and the Samsung Galaxy S8 hit shelves quite recently, both making a splash with their launches and spiffy new hardware. Interestingly, Samsung has included basically the same camera on the S8 as they did on the Galaxy S7 — but considering that was the hands-down winner last time around we can’t blame them. LG, on the other hand, scrapped everything about the LG G5 and started fresh the the G6.
We should note that the LG G6 and the iPhone 7 both sport secondary cameras — the G6 a 135° wide-angle and the iPhone 7 Plus a 2x optical zoomed lens, but neither were included for the comparison voting, though we’ll occasionally discuss them through this analysis. It’s also noting that the G6’s main camera takes slightly narrower photos than the rest (it’s 35mm lens compared to the 27-29mm on most smartphones), so all of its photos will look slightly more zoomed in even though they were all taken in the same spot.
How we shot
I carried these four phones over the course of a few days to various settings at varying times to put these all to the test. Every photo was shot in full Auto mode with settings that would match what you would get out-of-the-box from the manufacturer — right down to leaving automatic exposure and auto HDR enabled. The only changes we made to the image files was stripping identifying data and shrinking the size of the full panorama files before uploading.
Technically, every one of these phones is capable of shooting in RAW with manual controls (the iPhone and Pixel both require third-party apps). We fully embrace that advanced pro-level photography and editing, but also acknowledge that’s not how “normal” people take photos. Heck, we don’t even typically take photos like that. There are billions of smartphones out there and the vast majority of people don’t bother with manual controls, DNG files, or learning what aperture and exposure and shutter speed are about. And that’s okay, because Samsung and Apple and LG and Google have bent over backwards to give them all a great Auto experience.
(Let’s be honest, if you really care about messing with ISO and white balance and everything else, then you already know what you want out of a camera, and it’s not the tiny fixed lens and minuscule sensor you get with a phone. What you want is a real camera with real controls and a big sensor and lenses.)
One last thing before we start looking at the photos: let’s talk specs.
|Category||Apple iPhone 7||Google Pixel||LG G6||Samsung Galaxy S8|
Alright, that’s a lot of numbers. But what do they mean?
Megapixels is the total number of light-sensing pixels you’ll find on the camera’s sensor plate, arranged in a grid. The “mega” part means one million, so a “12 megapixel” sensor will have 12 million individual pixels on it. More pixels mean more detail for your photos, and every one of these will produce photos that are bigger than all but the most expensive monitors. More megapixels does mean, however, that you can crop in on a photo and still have plenty of detail, or print at large sizes without starting to see individual pixels.
Resolution is the dimensions of the pixel grid on the sensor: width and height. Multiply the two and you’ll get the pixel count, and thus the megapixels. All of these cameras conform to a standard 4:3 aspect ratio.
Sensor size is the literal physical size of the sensor. A bigger sensor means that the manufacturer can either put on bigger pixels to collect more light for a brighter photo, or more pixels for a more detailed photo. Sensor size is measured as a fraction — the larger the number, the larger the sensor (remember, in fractions a smaller denominator results in a bigger number), measuring the diagonal across the plate (just like we measure screen sizes). Of these four phones, the Pixel has the largest sensor, but it’s only a tenth of an inch bigger than the smallest in the iPhone or G6.
Pixel size is the physical measurement of an individual pixel on a sensor. A bigger pixel can collect more light, which is most useful in dark environments where light is at a premium. We are still talking about microscopically tiny pixels here — 12 million on a plate the size of your pinky nail — thus the measurement of micrometers (μm). Even the biggest pixels — the 1.4 μm you’ll find on the Galaxy S8 and Google Pixel, are just 1/70th the thickness of a human hair. In other words: itty bitty.
Aperture is the width of the hole that light passes through — the bigger the opening, the more light that can get to the sensor, and the better an image the camera can produce. Aperture size is written as a fraction, e.g. ƒ/2.0 (the “ƒ” stands for “1”); the smaller the number in the fraction, the wider the opening. Aperture is a relative measure — two lenses with differing lengths and the same aperture would not have the same size opening — but for smartphones the cameras are all roughly the same size. Because it’s a measure of the diameter of a circle, a seemingly small difference, like from ƒ/2.4 to ƒ/1.8, will double the area of he opening and thus the amount of light.
Take it again!
While we’re going to go over the results here, we know you might want to see for yourself what you like — after all, it was a blind test. We’ve made a copy of the survey from before; it’s still blind to start, but once you select your favorite photo it’ll tell you which phone you picked.
Alright, so the Galaxy S8 came out on top with the Pixel and G6 close behind. Let’s see how everything shook out.
When it comes to bright, outdoor shots, the Galaxy S8 and LG G6 are hard to beat. There’s always enough light to work with even for the poorest of modern cameras, so brightly-lit shots are all about how the phone processes the photos, and to your eyes Samsung and LG have the most pleasing processing. It’s a preview of what you’ll see throughout this comparison: photos that look great, but aren’t necessarily true to life.
Take the first photo, shot in Cincinnati’s Washington Park. The trees, lush with vegetation, look great on all four phones. But LG, Google, and Samsung have dramatically kicked up the saturation in a way that Apple does not — LG also dialed up the brightness and contrast, bringing hyperrealism to the scene.
This trade-off between accuracy and pleasing plays out again and again in the outdoor comparisons. In the shots of the Roebling Suspension Bridge, the Android phones play up the blue of the bridge and the sky and even manage to make the mud-brown of the Ohio River look more appealing.
In the daytime panorama, the Galaxy S8 took top marks thanks to its exceedingly bright and colorful output, even with noticeable errors and artifacts from the pan-style capture (note the jaggedness of the windows on the US Bank building and the undulating horizon). The dense patterns and lines of the towers proved difficult for the iPhone as well, and the LG G6 utterly failed to maintain a straight horizon. The Google Pixel, coming in at second in the pano contest, produce both the straightest and most-balanced panorama thanks to its shot-by-shot capture method, but it was ultimately felled by the brightness of the Galaxy S8’s.
The Pixel wasn’t handicapped by its smaller aperture or electronic stabilization.
When the sun went down the Pixel actually performed the best. This might seem surprising, thanks to Google’s choice of using electronic image stabilization instead of an optically-stabilized sensor, but the results speak for themselves. The Pixel’s nighttime images were colorful, clear, and balanced, though it did struggle mightily with the blinding lights of the ballpark. The Pixel wasn’t even handicapped by its much-smaller aperture, frequently outperforming the iPhone 7.
When it comes to the nighttime panoramas, the pan-style fell flat on its face. The Pixel’s shot-by-shot panorama system produced a straight, bright, and balanced image that accurately reflected the environment. The Galaxy S8 and LG G6 took color-balance initially from the yellow-lit bridge pier on the left, resulting in the ballpark turning out unnaturally blue. And while the iPhone 7’s continuous color sampling gave true-to-life colors, the image itself was dim in comparison. While the iPhone might be more accurate in daylight, the same dimness and low-saturation does not reflect the human eye at night.
LG G6 wide angle
Apple iPhone 7 Plus telephoto
It’s worth taking into consideration the secondary cameras at play here. Above you’ll find a selection of photos from the LG G6’s wide angle camera and from the iPhone 7 Plus’s telephoto lens. Unlike previous models, you’ll find the same sensor under the secondary camera as under the standard one, meaning the results should be generally the same with regards to color and balance. It’s more about what you can do with framing.
In the city, the G6’s wide angle lets you capture more of the world around you in a single shot that’s close to the human field of view. There’s some serious distortion around the corners, but with practice you can take some very dramatic shots in both wide-open and close quarters. Panoramas with the wide angle lens are extra tall, though LG’s tendency to induce waviness from uneven panning can be exacerbated by the wide angle. It’s worth noting that the wide angle in the G6 is not stabilized, so dark shots can be difficult.
The iPhone 7’s telephoto lens is like the exact opposite of the G6 — zooming in by a factor of 2 compared to the standard lens. The result is the ability to take photos with the equivalent of a 56mm lens (what pro photographers would term a “portrait” lens), cropped in without a loss of detail you’d get with digital zoom. The result is the ability to take crisper zoomed-in photos, as well as utilize some more artistic framing or get a shorter if more detailed panorama. The telephoto lens is not optically stabilized and has a much narrower ƒ/2,8 aperture, and as a result the iPhone 7 falls back to the primary (and stabilized) sensor for zoomed-in nighttime shots. As you’d expect, they’re blurry and blotchy.
Heading indoors, the results were more widely mixed. In high contrast environments, the LG G6 came out on top, with the Galaxy S8 and Google Pixel not far behind. The iPhone 7 clocked a dismal 8% pick rate on this comparison — auto HDR fired on all the Android phones, but not for the iPhone (Apple is stingy when it comes to triggering HDR, even if though results are nearly always better and the iPhone also saves a non-HDR copy).
And, of course, one of the things we capture the most often indoors is food. The lighting inside The Eagle in Over The Rhine was admittedly a temperature balancing challenge: on the left there was clean white indirect sunlight and above and to the right was warm overhead lighting. Actually, that’s not really a challenge — indirect sunlight is basically the best lighting a photographer can ask for, and yet the Android phones all overcompensated for the yellowish interior lights and turned the sandwich almost blue. I don’t know about you, but I prefer my fried chicken not blue.
Turn down the lights and you end up with the same story playing out inside as outside: the Pixel’s electronic stabilization isn’t a problem, the G6 and S8 perform admirably and provide good, sharp images, and the iPhone 7 is notably muted and makes even quarter-inch-thick bacon look unappetizing. Sad.
LG G6 wide angle
Apple iPhone 7 Plus telephoto
While use of the secondary cameras on the LG G6 and iPhone 7 Plus is pretty straightforward when you’re capturing the environment, things change when you have a specific subject. In this case, it’s lunch.
The G6 wide angle camera presents you with essentially two options: from the same distance that you’d take a typical food photo, you’ll get a lot more of the environment around you, capturing the atmosphere in a way that even stepping back with a normal camera cannot. The other option is to push in close, simulating having your face right up in that sandwich, though you risk dealing with fisheye effects at this distance and have to cope with the fixed focus of the wide angle lens.
Flipping to the iPhone 7, your options are reversed. From the typical distance you get a crop in for detail of the meal, while if you pull back you can get a shot that limits the amount of background in the shot for a more professional framing. When it comes to food, though, you need to take into account that the iPhone switches back to the primary stabilized sensor if it’s too dark, so you might just end up with a blurry blown-up photo instead.
Let’s take some pictures of people. Historically, portrait photography has been one of Apple’s strongest suits, but by these results Google, Samsung, and LG have all seriously picked up their games. Thankfully, the over-saturation that’s present in many of the non-people shots is dialed back when there are faces involved. Interestingly, it looks like the multi-shot processing happening on the Galaxy S8 seems to be taking out some of the detail in skin (beauty enhancing modes were all left fully off), but with the bright background of Times Square the S8 still produced a clear and crisp photo of Mr. Daniel Bader. The Pixel’s portrait of Daniel was equally good, but the background was blown out in comparison. And while the iPhone managed the background better than any of the others, it did so at the expense of the brightness of his face. And the G6? He’s purple now. This was far-and-away the strongest showing for the Galaxy S8, with 71% picking it as the best photo.
The LG G6 produced a remarkable portrait photo, illuminating the subjects clearly while preserving detail and color in the entire environment.
But step away from the bustle of New York City and the tables turn. With the Cincinnati skyline as a backdrop, the LG G6 produced a remarkable photograph, illuminating the subjects clearly while preserving detail and color in the entire environment. The Pixel’s photo was significantly brighter, but so much so that it demolished the sky in a blur of white. While the Galaxy S8’s photo was clear, the subjects turned out rather dark, and the iPhone 7 even more so with a noticeable and unnatural dip in saturation across the board.
Heading outside to take some people photos? If you’ve read this far, then the results won’t be surprising: the Pixel comes out on top again. That electronic stabilization really is something. On the processing side, the Pixel managed to produce a nice even tone across Daniel’s face that matched the yellow streetlights, while the G6 and Galaxy S8 struggled with other light sources. The iPhone 7 didn’t fall as short as it has in other dark comparisons, but the lack of detail was noticeable.
LG G6 wide angle
Taking portraits with the wide-angle camera on the LG G6 is a great way to capture the environment around the subject without having to step far back. It also lets you keep the same angle and depth you’d get on the subject from a more “standard” distance. The difference is stark compared to similarly framed photos taken with a standard camera — the wide angle anchors the subject in the frame, while stepping back for the same framing makes them more part of the environment.
Apple iPhone 7 Plus telephoto
As mentioned above, the telephoto lens on the iPhone 7 Plus can lend itself to more “professional-feeling” framing. You get less background and more detail on the subjects, and while that’s good and all, the iPhone has a trick up its sleeve. It’s call “Portrait Mode”, and it uses the two cameras in tandem with some on-device machine learning to determine the subject and the depth of the photo and apply an enhanced blurring effect to the background (“bokeh”, as it’s known in photography circles). The results can be hit-or-miss — the iPhone struggled with blurring the busy Times Square background around Daniel’s head, but the couple in front of the stadium turned out mostly great — but when it works it gives an extra bit of “pro” feeling to your photos.
Looking for a comparison the iPhone still wins, hands-down? Here it is. 44% of voters picked the iPhone 7 as the best selfie photo, even against the newly-enhanced auto-focusing camera of the Galaxy S8. How’d the iPhone win here? True to life colors, brightness, and balance coupled with fine detail (hello pores!). The Pixel came in second, with many of the same attributes as the iPhone, but with a clear drop in brightness. The Galaxy S8 and LG G6 picked up that brightness, however, producing photos with blown-out skies and pale skin tones.
Looking for a comparison the iPhone still wins, hands-down? Selfies.
The LG G6 fared poorly here thanks to LG’s decision to include a single wide-angle front-facing camera. Unlike the rear view, which can switch between the two lenses depending on your zoom level, the front camera’s “standard” angle that closely matches a standard front-facing camera only does that with software zoom and enhancements. The result is a blurry and disappointing mess. The wider-angle is better, but only marginally so, still plagued with color balance and blurriness:
Color, Contrast, and Motion
Samsung’s penchant for oversaturation pays off in spades when the point of the photo is colors. The colorful pastels are dialed up to 11 by the Galaxy S8’s processing, and the full-sensor phase detection autofocus produced a crisp capture of the tops of the sticks while the wide ƒ/1.7 had the added benefit of blurring even the not-that-distant bottom of the tubes. Shockingly, the iPhone 7 actually produced the most-saturated and highest contrast image of the bunch — so much so that it looked overprocessed and lost detail.
Samsung’s penchant for oversaturation pays off in spades when the point of the photo is colors.
While the LG G6, Galaxy S8, and Pixel all handled the strong glare off the car’s hood with ease (thank you, auto HDR), saturation in the environment and the reflected sky declined in that same order. One could argue that the G6 may have taken it too far, but then again it is was judged by a wide margin to be a favorite over the others. The iPhone continued the trend of decreasing saturation, spitting out a photo that almost looks as if it was run through an Instagram filter (note the no-longer-red Honda in the background). Additionally, the iPhone handled the contrast poorest, managing to both blow out the hood highlight and lose detail in the shadows.
Capturing motion in broad daylight was handled with ease by all four phones — they’ve got wide apertures (Pixel excluded) and large sensors that allow for quick shutter speeds that freeze the action. These photos of the fountain in Washington Park are crisp in a way that the human eye cannot see, a moment frozen in time. The Galaxy S8’s win can be attributed to the cleanness of the image — each individual water droplet is clear and crisp. The G6 features the same crispness, but the water droplets are afflicted with some unfortunate artifacting thanks to the triggered HDR. The iPhone appeared have a slightly slower shutter than the G6 and Galaxy S8.
If you want to get up close, the Galaxy S8 is hard to beat. The ƒ/1.7 lens — the widest in this comparison — can take much of the credit here, allowing for a very shallow depth of field (the plane that is in focus) and more-blurred foregrounds and backgrounds than the others can offer. The iPhone 7 was again hindered by Apple’s reluctance to trigger HDR more frequently, producing a photo that tried to balance the sunlit petals with the dark interior and fell short for both.
The Pixel’s photo of the flower’s interior, despite being quite similar to the Galaxy S8 and LG G6, fell to a distant last place (10%). Perhaps it was close enough but not quite, while the iPhone’s was different enough with its blown-out contrast to take third.
Apple iPhone 7 Plus telephoto
The iPhone 7 Plus’s telephoto lens poses the same options for macro as it does for any single-subject photography: you can get even closer, or you can pull out for a different look. Both are effective uses, though if you really want to get macro the telephoto lens does let you get twice as close as the standard camera, bringing out even more detail. Pulled back, it can’t duplicate the same level of background blur as the main camera, thanks to the much narrower ƒ/2.8 aperture compared to the ƒ/1.8 on the main camera.
We’re not pulling out any LG G6 wide angle photos here, as the fixed focus point is too far out to be useful for macro photography.
While the Galaxy S7 won with a wide margin last year, the results were much tighter this time around. While the Samsung Galaxy S8 took first place with 29.75% of the overall vote, the Google Pixel was incredibly close behind at 29.20%. And the LG G6 wasn’t that much further behind at 26.5%. These top three results are close enough that we’re almost tempted to crown all three as winners, but there can only be one king and the Galaxy S8 is it.
In a dramatic change from the last blind test we ran, the iPhone 7 fell to 14.5%, only passing third place in the two categories it won — food (thanks to better color accuracy) and the front-facing camera. Apple has a lot of work cut out for it in meeting the mark set by the LGs, Samsungs, and Googles of the world. There’s certainly a strong argument to be made that the iPhone produces a more “true to real life” photo, but these results show that “real life” isn’t what people want.
The iPhone 7 Plus and LG G6 can also make compelling cases with their secondary cameras. They’re wildly different from each other and could be enough to put either one over the top for your use case, especially with how closely the LG G6 trailed the Galaxy S8 in the primary camera comparison.
There’s a simple reason for why the Galaxy S8’s hyper saturation won: it’s objectively prettier to our base animal brains.
Samsung continues to give the people exactly what they want.
We’re drawn to colors, from the food that we eat to what we look for in a mate, bright and bold colors are better than dull and gray. Samsung, LG, and Google clearly recognize this and have tweaked their image processing to give us photos that are more appealing. Taken on their own, the iPhone’s photos are acceptable, if often dark, but as soon as you compare them side-by-side with the competition the difference is clear.
In truth, you won’t go wrong with any of these phones. Each has its strengths and weaknesses, but all will take great photos from your bright and vivid life that you’ll love and share with friends and family. After all, the best camera is still the one you have on you.