What is the best camera phone?
Best overall camera phone: Huawei P20 Pro
Although we’ve picked the P20 Pro as our winner, the truth is there are no bad cameras in this group test. In our opinion the Huawei P20 Pro is the best all-rounder. This is despite its overzealous processing and crazy greens, which you can turn off if you like. Ultimately, the P20 Pro has the best zoom of any phone you can currently buy and also does a brilliant job with its night mode that produces noticeably better photos than its rivals.
Its other main weakness is that only 1080p video at 30 frames per second is stabilized. That makes the other modes – including 4K – essentially useless. If you prefer to record at 60 frames per second, the Galaxy S9 Plus is a better choice.
The HTC U12+ is excellent if you mainly take photos in good light. It’s capable of exceptional shots, and also superb 4K60 video. Its weakness is in very low light and it’s a shame the telephoto camera isn’t used for video. Bear in mind the phone itself has issues, too.
Samsung’s Galaxy S9 Plus offers very good photos and videos. It takes decent photos from the 2x telephoto camera and its performance in low light.
The Google Pixel 2, including the XL, is still an excellent choice if you want sharp photos with natural-looking colours, but the lack of a telephoto camera could be a deal-breaker for some.
1. Huawei P20 Pro Price: £799 from fave.co/2OB8dsY
Huawei has quickly built a reputation for great phones, but thus far its Leica-branded cameras haven’t been too impressive. That all changes with the P20 Pro. There’s still too much emphasis on photos – video quality lags behind rivals – but if your priority is taking great photos day and night, the P20 Pro is the smartphone to buy.
It’s the first phone to have three rear cameras, a 40Mp main camera, an 8Mp telephoto camera (3x zoom) and a 20Mp monochrome camera. Along with what Huawei calls the NPU – a Neural Processing Unit – and the camera app itself, you can point and shoot and get remarkable images from the P20 Pro.
That’s because it chooses the mode automatically, then adjusts settings within that mode to best suit
the scene in front of the camera. For example, point it at a person and if you’re close enough, it’ll switch to Portrait mode and blur the background.
The same sort of thing happens with scenery, food, pets and on the beach. There are even presets for ‘blue skies’, ‘greenery’ and ‘flowers’. If you dislike that the greenery mode makes grass and trees look too bright and unnatural (which it does), just tap the ‘x’ when the scene tag pops up: do it enough and the phone will learn you don’t want to use that mode.
If you’re used to an iPhone, the Apple-like camera app will be familiar. It even offers moving photos and attempts to emulate Apple’s Portrait Lighting
without success. One of two highlights is the night mode. Other phones claim to have night modes, but Huawei’s is the first that’s able to keep the shutter open for six seconds and deliver a sharp photo. Usually you’d need a rock-solid tripod for that, but some clever processing makes it possible to do this even if you have shaky hands.
The other stand-out feature is the 5x hybrid zoom. The 3x zoom lens is used in tandem with the 40Mp camera to produce sharp telephoto shots with good detail levels: far better than you could gain from digital zoom on other phones.
What about quality? By default, photos have a very processed look. This divides opinion: some people really like the intense sharpening and eye-popping
colours. Others hate it and think it ruins the pictures. We think that, for the majority of the time, the P20 Pro’s photos are excellent. They offer great detail, biting sharpness and great dynamic range. They’re also instantly ready to share on social media without editing.
By default, photos are 10Mp, not 40Mp. The reason for this is because three-quarters of the pixels are thrown away. This ‘pixel-binning’ isn’t a new technique but it has the benefit of creating a sharper photo. If you force the P20 Pro to capture at 40Mp, you’ll notice the image is much softer, even if there’s more detail when you zoom right in.
Colours are also much more natural and contrast is set to a more sensible level, too.
Video is very good (see fave.co/2v8mCVq), as long as you’re happy to use the default mode – 1080p at 30fps. It offers nicely stabilized footage with
good focus, very little noise and good stereo sound. Naturally, you get much more detail in the 4K mode, but all the stabilization is disabled which makes it very shaky, even if you stand still. It’s also disappointing that there’s no stabilization for 60fps video, and no option to record at 60 frames per second in 4K at all.
Unlike the Galaxy S9+’s super slo-mo, Huawei’s is all manual, so it’s down to you to tap the record button at exactly the right moment, and it’s easy to miss the fraction of a second you wanted.
Still, there’s a lot to like: several focusing systems are used to ensure fast and accurate focus in all light conditions, and there’s even predictive focus using ‘AI’ that’s helpful if you’re trying to photograph a flower that’s being blown around by the wind.
Also, the P20 Pro’s Portrait mode delivers some of the best blurred backgrounds of any phone
camera, accurately determining what is the subject and what isn’t.
Selfie lovers will be drawn in by the 24Mp front camera. However, although it does take good photos, the Pixel 2 XL’s 8Mp camera takes much better-looking selfies. But in dim light, the P20 Pro again comes into its own, delivering surprisingly sharp selfies. As you can see below, it applies some processing in the portrait mode (right) which makes skin tones look unnatural.
The Huawei P20 Pro is – in our opinion – the best choice for most people. It’s versatile thanks to its 3x and 5x zoom modes, and lets you take sharp photos even in the dimmest conditions.
2. Samsung Galaxy S9+ Price: £869 from fave.co/2Ma4rVH
The Galaxy S9 is interesting because its main camera has a variable aperture. This has been done before only once or twice on a phone camera, but is standard on compact cameras and DSLRs, and certainly isn’t new technology.
The iris can switch between only two apertures: f/1.5 (bigger) and f/2.4 (smaller). However, that’s still useful as it can open up to let in more light at night, and close up in bright light to offer sharper photos.
In terms of specs, the S9 Plus is very similar to the iPhone X with a pair of 12Mp cameras, one with a 2x zoom and both with optical stabilization. However, Samsung has added a 960fps slo-mo option in
addition to 240fps at 1080p, something you won’t find on the iPhone. For normal video, you get the same options as the iPhone, which means 4K video at 24-, 30- or 60fps. Pick the latter and you’re limited to five minutes, but it’s unwise to even shoot for that long as the file sizes become unmanageable, despite the fact it records in the same HEVC format as the iPhone.
You’ll find advanced controls in Samsung’s camera app, much like Huawei’s. As well as being able to adjust ISO and shutter speed you can choose the aperture manually (including for video). Some will love this, but for the most part you want to point and shoot and let the phone worry about getting the settings right.
The app itself is our least favourite, but it’s easy to get used to its oddities. Overall, there are too many icons on screen and too many modes and options. The main list at the top picks out ‘FOOD’ alongside AUTO, PANORAMA and AR EMOJI. Apart from SUPER SLO-MO there’s no video mode: you have to press the button with the red dot, as opposed to the white circle, to start recording a video.
And although the motion detection window is useful when shooting at 960fps, it isn’t perfect. It will let you record several slo-mo clips within one video, but it won’t necessarily choose the moments you would. You can trigger it manually, but this is easier said than done.
Portrait mode is called ‘Live Focus’ and works on both the front and back cameras. It’s most effective on the rear, though, as the two cameras allow for much better depth detection. You can adjust the amount of
blur (and, separately, beautification) to suit. Usefully, you can adjust the blurriness after the fact, and also toggle between the close-up and wide-angle versions of the shot. It also does a good job for selfies.
Video quality is on a par with Apple’s iPhone X (see fave.co/2vaIUWv), so it’s very good. 1080p footage is nicely stabilized, but much softer than the sharp and detailed (but wobblier) 4K video. The stereo audio also sounds good.
The Hyperlapse video mode is fun to use, but any phone can shoot hyperlapse – including the iPhone. Hyperlapse is simply time-lapse video shot while moving around.
When it comes to photos, the S9 Plus does an excellent job for the most part. You won’t notice the effect of the variable aperture, as it’ll mainly stick to f/2.4 in daylight. Colours and contrast are great, but it does mess with skin tones. Be sure to put the beauty slider to its ‘0’ position to disable this effect (if you don’t like it).
In low light, the S9 Plus outperforms the iPhone X. Its photos have more detail and less noise, and it also keeps highlights under control where the iPhone suffers from flare. The P20 Pro remains the best option for shooting in low-light, however.
3. HTC U12+ Price: £699 from fave.co/2x2FiJu
The U12+ may be fundamentally flawed, but if HTC can fix its button woes with a software update it may just be worth buying because of its sensational photo and video quality.
On the rear are two cameras: a 12Mp UltraPixel sensor paired with an f/1.75 lens for everyday shots and a 16Mp sensor with a 2x telephoto lens that has an aperture of f/2.6. That main camera takes excellent
photos in just about all conditions (barring extreme low light) and is a joy to use thanks to its super-fast focusing, which is also fantastically accurate using both laser and full-sensor phase-detection.
Photos also benefit from ‘HDR Boost 2’, which is an improved version of what you’ll find on last year’s U11. It combines multiple frames almost instantaneously and leads to images which occasionally beat even the Pixel 2 for dynamic range.
Colours, detail and exposure are excellent in just about every photo you take, and white balance is noticeably better than the competition, too. That means true-to-life colours under all lighting conditions. Unfortunately, all of this is true only if
Huawei P20 Pro
5x hybrid zoom
Samsung Galaxy S9+
When it comes to photos, the S9 Plus does an excellent job for the most part
The P20 Pro remains the best option for shooting in low-light
Here’s a cropped portion from a photo taken using the 2x telephoto lens
Colours, detail and exposure are excellent in just about every photo you take