Updated: Dec 18, 2018
A couple of friends asked me last weekend what phone they should get for photography, and I gave a brief recommendation. But it’s not an easy answer so let’s take a look at the options and try not to resort to ‘it depends’ too much.
That would be the obvious answer, at least a few years ago. The default choice, the world’s most popular camera (according the Flickr) and demonstrated by the ‘shot on iPhone’ commercials. You could then consider the equivalent Samsung Galaxy S as being the main rival on the Android side of things. Samsung started getting close to the quality of the iPhone camera, maybe even as good or better in some iterations, especially if you prefer bold, saturated colors.
But the camera phone world of 2018 is more complicated with dual lenses, triple lenses (and rumors of Nokia planning to go further with a new flagship), portrait modes and complex software image processing. The most common use of multiple lenses (including the iPhone X, Galaxy S9 Plus and Note 9) is to provide an optical zoom. The second lens provides a longer focal length, but then the two lenses can also be used together to create the depth effects, artificially blurring the background for a portrait for example. But others (Huawei for example) have the second lens feed a black & white sensor that adds to the details captured by the primary color sensor. Images from each lens are combined to create a single high-resolution shot. And then there’s the Google Pixel, using a single lens but achieving comparable results using software and machine learning rather than the extra hardware.
It’s also not just the quality of the image that matters. Speed is important too, both the time it takes to start up the camera app, and the shutter lag (any delay between pressing the button and your phone capturing the image). Any significant shutter lag will make the phone extremely frustrating to use as a camera.
So which is best?
A Google search on camera reviews isn’t necessarily your best friend. Not because it’s biased towards Google’s own phone, but because it tends to bring up tech site reviews rather than photography sites. Not to say that the tech reviews are wrong, but their priorities and depth of testing may not match those that only care about the photographs. There are some decent comparisons between some of the top phones on YouTube though.
Here’s the DXOmark top 10 at the moment, although it seems that they haven’t tested the Google Pixel 3 or Huawei Mate 20 Pro yet, both of which I’d expect to be near the top: 1. Huawei P20 Pro (109) 2. Apple iPhone XS Max (105) 3. HTC U12+ (103) 3. Samsung Galaxy Note 9 (103) 3. Xiaomi Mi MIX 3 (103) 6. Huawei P20 (102) 7. Apple iPhone XR (101) 8. Samsung Galaxy S9 Plus (99) 8. Xiaomi Mi 8 (99) 10. Google Pixel 2 (98)
DPReview doesn’t have many reviews on the latest phones, but does award the iPhone XS as their best smartphone camera, with the Pixel 3 as runner-up. The Huawei Mate 20 Pro, Samsung Galaxy S9+ and Sony Xperia XZ3 also make the shortlist.
Keep in mind that when there are smaller and larger variants on the same phone, sometimes the camera setup will be different. The iPhone XS and Google Pixels both have identical cameras in the smaller and larger phones, but the Samsung Galaxy S9 only has two lenses in the ‘Plus’ variant.
If you’re in the US then the limited availability of Huawei phones might be a factor for you, but technically the Mate 20 Pro might just be the best camera phone around at the moment. In terms of specs at least - I haven’t had chance to try it yet.
You then probably want to factor in whether you actually like the rest of the phone for phone stuff. Whether you have other Apple or Google or Samsung products and services. Whether the current prices fit your budget (for mid-range phones I’d look at Nokia or OnePlus, but would be tempted to get an older Pixel or iPhone instead).
If the dual lens cameras appeal because of the second ‘telephoto’ focal length (and it is a nice option, I had the dual lens iPhone 7 Plus for a while), another option is to add third party lenses, such as the excellent Moment lenses, which can achieve the same results or better. That’s more $ again though.
One other thought, and that’s apps. Despite the multitude of third party camera apps, you’ll probably most often (if not always) use the default camera app. It used to be the case that Android phones had a much more limited selection of editing apps than iOS, but it’s pretty much caught up now. One notable exception, and the one app that I miss most on Android phones, is Hipstamatic. You can use it as your camera app or for editing, and select different ‘films’ and ‘lenses’ within the app. It’s very retro in image style but has something of a cult following and Android doesn’t really have an equivalent at the moment. What I like most is the ability to get an interesting 'processed' image in square format without editing.
Personally, I picked up a cheap ($150) Google Pixel mk1 from eBay earlier this year (one of my better purchases) then took advantage of a Black Friday deal to order a Pixel 3 on the Google Fi service. The original Pixel has been excellent so I have high hopes for the 3 when I get chance to use it properly.
I hope that helps. In good light, a camera phone can be all you need if you're happy with the relatively wide focal length (or don't mind spending more on additional lenses). In darker conditions, they're improving all the time. Some excellent photographers have based their careers on phone photography and the technology, particularly the software, is still improving at a rapid rate.