There is no denying that cell phone cameras have made a huge technological leap this past decade. They continue to get better too. So much so, that people are actually contemplating if their phone can replace their expensive mirrorless or DSLR camera. For me (and many others), cell phone cameras still have a long way to go before that (but maybe not as long as you’d think). Although extremely portable and fantastic in their own right, they lack the high-resolution, dynamic range, noise handling, and customization that many of us are accustomed to in our full-size cameras.
Nonetheless, cell phone cameras are great to have and can be an excellent complement to your photography gear. Each year phone cameras get better and soon; they might be almost as capable as our full-size friends. At the moment, they are extremely useful in many situations, and in the right lighting/conditions, they might be able to replace your full-size camera. Certain phone applications allow you to actually shoot in RAW too. Cell phone cameras continue to improve year after year. 2019 was a big year for phones, so I thought I would highlight a couple of the best performers.
Google Pixel 3
Release date: October 2018
Rear camera: 12.2MP
Front camera: 8MP, f/1.8, 28mm (wide), PDAF, 8MP, f/2.2, 19mm (ultrawide)
Rear camera aperture: f/1.8, 28mm
Weight: 148 g
Dimensions: 145.6 x 68.2 x 7.9 mm
Storage: 64/128 GB
Google designed its Pixel 3 to focus around the camera and to really compete with the Samsung and iPhone offerings. The Pixel 3 does just that and more. The Pixel 3 Smartphone from Google features a 12.2-megapixel dual-pixel rear camera that takes excellent photos, while also being able to capture video at 4k/30fps. On the front, you get two 8 megapixel cameras, one with a normal lens and the other with a wide-angle lens. The dual front 8MP selfie cameras feature a normal lens in one and a wide-angle lens in the other. The Pixel 3 also brings some cool shooting modes to the table, such as Top Shot and Night Sight. Those are photo assist features to help you capture the best shot depending on conditions. Overall, Pixel 3 is an excellent smartphone too. It has a beautiful OLED screen and has received rave reviews.
Huawei P30 Pro
Release date: April 2019
Rear cameras: 40MP (Wide Angle Lens, f/1.6, OIS), 20MP (Ultra Wide Angle Lens, f/2.2), 8MP (Telephoto, f/3.4, OIS)
Front camera: 32MP
Weight: 192 g
Dimensions: 158 x 73.4 x 8.4 mm
Storage: 128/256/512 GB
Although not widespread in the US, Huawei is a major international smartphone producer and has some excellent phones. The Huawei P30 Pro has been lauded as having the very best camera in a smartphone. It stands apart from the Pixel 3 in two ways: low-light capabilities and telephoto capabilities.
The Huawei P30 Pro has a whopping four cameras on the back, which include a 40MP main lens, an 8MP telephoto lens, a 20MP ultra-wide lens, and then a ToF (time-of-flight) camera that acts as a depth sensor for portrait photography. We also see a couple of other unique features with this phone. Contrary to almost all other sensors that use an industry standard RGB sensor, the sensor on the Huawei uses an RYYB sensor that is able to capture more light. It is noticeable in shots too, you will see much more shadow detail and dynamic range with the main camera on this phone than others on the list. This phone could foreshadow what we see in the iPhones released in a few months and it looks like low-light capabilities could take a major step forward with the next wave of phones, judging by the P30 Pro. This is an amazing camera, you will probably see similar specs and performance in the new Google, Samsung, and Apple releases coming soon, but Huawei has set the bar.
Samsung Galaxy S10 Plus
Release date: March 2019
Rear camera: 12MP + 12MP + 16MP | Front camera: 10MP + 8MP
Rear camera aperture: f/1.5, f/2.4, f/2.2
Dimensions: 161.9 x 76.4 x 8.8mm
The Samsung Galaxy S10 Plus is a big phone. It has a beautiful large screen, but it also boasts a really good camera. The Galaxy S10 Plus got a big camera improvement over the 9 series with three cameras on the rear. The best addition was a 123-degree ultra-wide angle, in my opinion. As a landscape photographer, I love seeing these super wide-angles being introduced into smartphones. Samsung could quite possibly have the best camera software out of all the manufacturers right now. It makes shooting with the S10 Plus a dream. It has numerous shooting modes that can really help create some great shots (like Color Point or Live Focus for instance).
One downside of the Samsung cameras is the algorithm they use to battle sensor noise. Photos have noise reduction smoothing applied to mask noise and the end result is an image that is noticeably less detailed than their Huawei and Google counterparts. You can argue that the S10 Plus is the best phone out right now so that alone could be the deciding factor over the Pixel 3 and P30 Pro
iPhone XS/XS Max
Release date: September 2018
Rear camera: 12MP + 12MP | Front camera: 7MP
OIS: Yes | Rear camera aperture: f/1.8, f/2.4
Autofocus type: Phase detection
Dimensions: 143.6 x 70.9 x 7.7mm/157.5 x 77.4 x 7.7mm
Battery size: 2,658/3,174mAh
Apple’s iPhone XS and XS Max have the exact same camera setup. Although further down the list, these Apple phones have excellent cameras and perhaps offer the easiest, most-efficient photography experience. Both camera sport dual camera on the rear with a single front camera. As always, the Apple Camera interface is clean, simple, and allows shooters to capture exactly what they intend. The downside? Well, you are looking at fewer features and shooting modes as the comparable Huawei, Google, and Samsung phones.
Although not as feature rich, Apple’s Portrait Mode is probably the best on any phone. That doesn’t help us much as nature photographers, but it is still a good feature to have when you are taking photos of friends and family.
Nonetheless, the cameras on these phones are Apple’s best to date and their low-light capabilities are very good. Personally, I am very excited to see what they offer in September when they announce their new phones. Rumors are saying that big improvements in the camera department are coming.
These two phones are excellent as smartphones too. The XS Max is right up there with the S10 Plus, but the killer for Apple is the high price of both phones.
Samsung Galaxy Note 9
Release date: August 2018
Rear camera: 12MP + 12MP | Front camera: 8MP
OIS: Yes | Rear camera aperture: f/1.5-f/2.4
Autofocus type: Phase detection
Dimensions: 161.9 x 76.4 x 8.8mm
Battery size: 4,000mAh
The Samsung Galaxy Note 9 was released as an improvement over the Galaxy S9 Plus, and we see a lot of enhancements particularly with the camera that makes it one of the top camera phones available.
One of the unique features with this phone that make it stand out is its scene-optimization feature. It will automatically adjust the white balance (temperature/tint) of the scene depending on the subject which you select (sunset, flower, food, text, etc.). I know we would prefer to do this with a RAW file, but it is great for when you take a snapshot and don’t want to go back to edit an image.
The two rear cameras are excellent and offer a slight improvement over the S9 Plus. Low-light is not as good as the S10 Plus and that is something even the S10 Plus struggles with. That is not to say that this camera is bad when it comes to low-light photography, it just means it is behind the pack when stacked against say the Pixel 3 and XS Max.
Matt Meisenheimer is a photographer based in Wisconsin. His artistry revolves around finding unique compositions and exploring locations that few have seen. He strives to capture those brief moments of dramatic light and weather, which make our grand landscapes so special. Matt loves the process of photography – from planning trips and scouting locations, taking the shot in-field, to post-processing the final image. Matt is an active adventurer and wildlife enthusiast as well. He graduated with a degree in wildlife ecology and worked in Denali National Park and Mount Rainier National Park as a biologist. He also spent 6 months working in the deserts of Namibia before finding his path in photography. Matt’s passion for the wilderness has taken him to many beautiful places around the world. As a former university teaching assistant, Matt is passionate about instruction. It is his goal to give his students the technical and creative knowledge they need to achieve their own photographic vision. He truly enjoys working with photographers on a personal level and helping them reach their goals. You can see Matt’s work and portfolio on his webpage at www.meisphotography.com
Don’t Miss the Next Session of BCJ “Live”
Backyard Bird Photography: Simple Techniques for Wildlife Close to Home
with Russell Graves
Tuesday, March 9th, 2021 at 11 am (Mountain)