Top 4 Smartphones For Image Quality

Two hands holding a smartphone and taking an image of the buildings at the waterline

Smartphones are capable of a lot of things in this day and age. But, for all the features that manufacturers cram in, probably none is as important as the camera. Social media may be a bigger deal in terms of hours, but that relies on third party apps, and not the phone hardware. Based on that, it doesn’t count as a phone feature.

But the quality of cameras in smartphones differs wildly. Even is supposedly high-end devices, the camera often appears an afterthought.

But, ignoring all the pixel counts, editing features or other gimmicks, which smartphone actually turns out the best images?

About Pixels and The Quality They Provide

We’re only going to say this once, pixels aren’t as important as you might think. There will be times when 13MP produce an image far worse than 3MP. The reason is the size of those pixels.

The room inside a smartphone case is, of course, very limited. As part of that limitation the sensor for the camera will be necessarily small. In fact, most smartphone sensors are around 1/3″ across the diagonal. To put it in perspective, that’s fractionally bigger than a Tic Tac. That’s right, a 13MP picture, which will print happily at 12″x10″, is captured on something so small you can fit a box full in your mouth.

This means that each pixel on the sensor is so small that it is invisible to the naked eye. This limits the amount of light which each pixel can absorb in one go, and it is this which has a big bearing on image quality.

That doesn’t mean less is better, it’s just to say that more isn’t necessarily better either, so don’t get hung up on pixel counts. So, to get to the point, which smartphones produce the best images?

Google Pixel 2

In all honesty, when you design the operating system, getting the hardware to use it effectively should be fairly straightforward. Even so, the images routinely produced by the Pixel 2 are just stunning. We’re always reluctant to compare any smartphone to a decent dSLR camera, because a phone will never be capable of matching a camera that’s built just to take pictures. This, though is as close as it gets.

Google Pixel 2 held up by hand

Google Pixel 2

Sharpness is excellent, as is color. Images are perhaps a tad dark for some tastes, but there’s a reason for that. Shadows contain much more detail than highlights. Thus, it is important to make sure the highlights are controlled, and don’t get “blown out” and contain no detail at all. This is what the Google Pixel 2 does well, and the results are just the best we’ve ever seen from a smartphone. The app is okay, if not great but if tinkering with manual settings isn’t really your thing, just point it and tap. You’ll get pictures that none of us could have dreamed of even just a few years ago.

Samsung Galaxy S9 Plus

Samsung have, for years, been sticking amazing cameras in their entire range. They reserve the best for the Galaxy S range of course, and especially the S9+. What might seem a little odd is that the S9 Plus has better hardware than the standard S9, at least as far as the camera goes. The Plus has a dual lens system, the likes of which is becoming more common on high-end models. As well, there is a variable aperture. For those who may not know what that is, it means the amount of light entering the lens is far greater than before. This means far more light than any other smartphone camera, and thus better quality images, especially in low light.

Samsung have also added dedicated memory for processing the pictures, especially reducing noise. All in all, the results are spectacular.

Hand holding Samsung Galaxy S9 and S9 plus in front of grass

Samsung Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus

iPhone X

Ah, at last an iPhone camera which makes the grade. It’s a pity it took a model costing $1000 to get there though. The cameras Apple have long used in iPhones have been, well, very average at best. The iPhone 6 had a 1.2MP front camera, for goodness’ sake. You’d be better employing a police sketch artist, frankly.

But, once the iPhone 7 came along, things improved until now, with the iPhone X we have 12MP and 7MP cameras, rear and front respectively. The iPhone X cameras aren’t perfect. They still over-expose in bright scenes, and the app is pretty standard, but they are better than most. The big bonus is the ability to shoot HD video at a huge 240fps. This makes for super smooth slow-mo video that is a lot of fun.

Hand holding the iPhone X

iPhone X

Huawei Mate 10 Pro

Huawei is one of those brands which has always been the bridesmaid, and never the bride. Until the Mate 10 Pro, that is. All of a sudden they had a model which could compete at the highest level on almost every front.

One curious aspect about the very excellent camera system is that they designed it for “proper” snappers. That is, it isn’t really aimed at absolute beginners. Or old people. Instead, it is all about manual control and this will be music to some ears. If you’re willing to put the effort into getting your pictures, the Mate 10 Pro will get you images as good as anything, including the Pixel 2. The only reason it will never beat the Pixel 2 in a straight shoot out is you can’t just pick it up and snap an image immediately, you need to review the settings first.

But, and it’s a big but, there’s a battery that will get you 2 days of use, even if you take a lot of pictures. Keep your eye on Huawei, there will probably be more to come.

Huawei Mate 10 Pro 3 views

Huawei Mate 10 Pro

Honorable Mentions

Galaxy S9

The standard S9 doesn’t quite match up to the dual-lens output on it’s big brother, but it is about the best single lens setup outside this list. We probably shouldn’t expect anything less from Samsung of course, so it’s nice they haven’t disappointed.

4 colored samsung s9's back view

Samsung Galaxy S9

HTC Ull Plus

Optical stabilization, 12MP rear camera and an amazing 16MP front camera make the HTC a great choice for keen photo hounds. 4K video is also here, and the whole package is a very solid choice as a flagship phone.

HTC Ull Plus 3 views

HTC Ull Plus

Nokia 8

Yes, you hear us right, Nokia are back with a bang. HMD, the people who own the brand are all ex-Nokia people looking to learn from the past and improve the future. Nokia always had the best cameras possible in their phone, and they’re carrying on that tradition here. Dual-lens, including a dedicated monochrome lens, and a wonderful Live Bokeh to control the background blur makes the 8 a joy to use. But for one issue, the Nokia 8 may well have made our list above, and that is the app. Although the features in the app are great, images are just a bit soft and lacking sharpness. It’s not the camera, as using another app produces pin sharp pictures. The problem though is that 3rd party apps don’t access some of the camera features, including Live Bokeh. Pressure is on Nokia to put things right. If they do, they’ll have a real contender.

Nokia 8 back on red and black screen

Nokia 8

Rachel C.
Rachel C.
Rachel is the researcher and blog writer for the Mr Aberthon website. She grew up in Brooklyn, New York and eventually made her way to Connecticut in order to become a part of the Mr Aberthon Team. She is passionate about technology and electronics, and nothing gives her more pleasure than discovering insights into the latest gadgets to hit the electronics market.