In the last four years, smartphone photography has evolved a lot thanks to the advances made with computer photography. Today a cell phone can recognize people, animals, landscapes, food and, from there, apply different image processing for each scene. We compared the photos captured by three of the best smartphones launched in 2020: iPhone 12 Pro Max, Galaxy Note 20 Ultra and Pixel 5.
Video: Photos of iPhone 12 Pro Max, Galaxy Note 20 Ultra and Pixel 5 compared
This comparison used four fundamental pillars that are used to choose the best photo and also to break the tie if necessary:
- Skin tone is the most important aspect in pictures with people.
- A photo ready to be posted without editing.
- Low amount of (grainy) photo noise.
- Sharpness and texture of the photos.
Who takes the best pictures?
Starting with the photos in well-lit environments and using the ultrawide lens, you can already see a characteristic of the Pixel 5, which is the ultrawide lens with a smaller viewing angle. To make things more fair, I remade the photo by correcting the composition.
The iPhone 12 Pro Max delivered an image with great colors, but with a lot of noise. It is the photo that has less chromatic aberrations at the edges due to the quality of the lens set implemented by Apple. Between the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra and the Pixel 5, the Google smartphone also brings a lot of noise, a darker photo and with less saturated colors.
The Note 20 Ultra wins in this comparison. Despite having more evident aberrations and deformations at the edges, the center and object of the photo is the most important. Excellent colors, good skin tone and managed to better remove the grains from dark areas.
Now with the main camera. In this example, the iPhone 12 Pro Max delivered a photo with low saturation and low contrast. The Galaxy Note 20 Ultra brings a good result of colors and skin tone, but the lighting and colors of the Pixel 5 made the third photo much more interesting. Pixel is the winner here.
In this photo on the lake with the ultrawide, the Pixel 5 was eliminated for bringing the result with less wealth of colors in the sky and vegetation, which was the objective of the photo. Between the iPhone 12 Pro Max and the Note 20 Ultra, the photo with the Galaxy has a much more visible reflection on the lens, which may not please some people, but for this example I believe it matched the photo’s proposal a lot. The dynamic range is also greater in the Samsung phone, which brings more information in the dark areas and more vivid colors throughout the photo. The Note 20 Ultra wins here.
One more photo against the light and this time with the main camera. Here the three smartphones lit up the face well. Samsung was the one that lit up the most, but it made the sky clearer and lost the blue. The iPhone 12 Pro Max managed to better balance the background of the photo with the subject photographed, illuminating the face to an acceptable level, controlling noise well and still making the sky slightly bluer than the other two smartphones. The iPhone wins this round.
Here we have a portrait mode and again the Pixel 5 has a more closed angle of view than other smartphones and it is necessary to correct this when shooting for the result to be more similar among the examples. The Google smartphone showed several clipping errors in the lower right corner. Between Apple and Samsung, Apple wins in this comparison. The photo with the iPhone has a much more balanced exposure and a more correct skin tone compared to the Note 20 Ultra.
Among the three selfies in portrait mode, the Pixel 5 was the only one that managed to balance the model’s face with the landscape in the background. Technically the iPhone 12 Pro Max has the photo with greater clarity, but who takes the point for having made a photo ready to be published is Google Pixel 5.
Now a selfie in favor of light and the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra delivered the worst skin tone. Between the iPhone 12 Pro Max and the Pixel 5, both have very similar skin tones and the light did not burst on the model’s face. The iPhone wins here for the sharpness of the examples.
Another selfie against the light and the Note 20 Ultra delivered the worst skin tone and burst exposure at the bottom of the photo. Between the iPhone 12 Pro Max and the Pixel 5, the Apple smartphone brings much greater clarity than all the others, but the winner is the Pixel 5 due to the balance between the face and the background of the photo.
In this example, both the iPhone and the Pixel delivered the pictures with more noise. The iPhone featured more washed colors, but it was the clearest photo of the three. The Galaxy Note 20 Ultra is the one that best dealt with the noise, which is very characteristic in this situation and, although the photo came out darker, it wins this comparison.
In this example, Pixel 5 delivered a photo with a slightly less saturated sky and less color on the beach sand, making the landscape less interesting. The Note 20 Ultra wins this round for making the colors more vivid, but without exaggerating the saturation and the beach look with a more summer look, with a photo ready to be posted.
Indoor photos and night scenes
We left the lighted environments and started with the indoor environments. Here I eliminate the Pixel 5 due to the very cold skin tone, which does not match the ambient light. The point goes to the Samsung cell phone, since the contrast of the photo and the hue are better, even though technically the iPhone is more realistic. This realism of the iPhone is present in several examples, but as the intention is to choose photos that do not require editing, who wins here is Samsung.
Here a portrait mode in the mirror and the Pixel 5 showed errors in the clipping once more, I even repeated the photo to be sure and the error remained. Artifacts appeared on the ceiling and there is no way to consider this photo, who wins here is the iPhone 12 Pro Max, which brings a sharper, clearer and error-free photo.
This photo shows a feature that stands out on the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra: the natural blur of the lens. The iPhone was eliminated because it made a lot of mistakes in the representation of colors, it is the most yellowish photo and without richness of color. The Pixel 5 and Note 20 Ultra brought more color richness and the Samsung smartphone showed better sharpness throughout the photo, in addition to a special touch on the natural blur in the background of the image. The Note 20 ultra wins this one.
Still in a closed environment, but already activating the night mode of the three smartphones, the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra delivered more clarity, but completely missed the skin tone and the environment, leaving everything very red. The iPhone pulled the skin to red, in addition to missing the tone of the plaid blouse. The Pixel 5 in general delivered the photo with the worst sharpness, but it was the most pleasing image to the eye, right skin tone and right blouse tone. Pixel wins.
The Pixel 5 completely missed the red hue of the mailbox. It was not just an error in the white balance: it missed the hue of the red, that is, it is an image processing error. Samsung’s night mode achieved a superior result in this example, brightening the dark areas of the tree and dealing better with the Christmas lights. Point for the Note 20 Ultra.
Here is a really complicated case. A single photo is completely different from the others. The Pixel 5 left the temperature cold, but with a lot of rich colors. The most realistic is the iPhone 12 Pro Max, it represented the temperature exactly as it was with the naked eye at the location of the photo. The worst result was the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra. The Pixel 5 delivers a beautiful photo ready to be published, winning this round.
The Galaxy Note 20 Ultra is the only one that can’t do portrait mode with night mode at the same time. Pixel once again wins this one, as it delivered a photo with excellent skin tone, colors and lighting.
Here the Pixel 5 delivered a photo with several clipping errors. This photo was intended precisely to test whether smartphones could separate the model from a polluted background. The photo of the Samsung device remains inferior, since the iPhone has the LIDAR sensor that is activated for depth mapping in low light. Night mode is also activated together with portrait mode. Point to the iPhone.
I repeated this photo three times on each smartphone and the result was always the same. The Pixel 5 brings the photo with more noise. The Apple phone corrected the white balance, delivered a brighter photo, with less noise and greater clarity. The iPhone wins here.
The three smartphones can recognize a tripod and activate long exposure mode during night mode. Pixel has astrophotography mode; I cannot reproduce this test while living in a capital, but this example is not about that. The goal is to put the smartphone on a tripod in night mode and activate long exposure mode. I turned off all the studio lights for this photo – the little light that came in came from the street window and I’m on the eighth floor.
The iPhone took the photo in 30 seconds, the Note 20 Ultra in 20 seconds and the Pixel 5 in 4 minutes – and even so it delivered the worst result of that comparison. Point to the iPhone 12 Pro Max.
And we ended up with 20 photos using the cameras in common between the three smartphones. Now it will be the last test and I will use the telephoto lens that has not yet been analyzed. The Pixel 5 does not have a zoom lens, so it is eliminated immediately. The iPhone 12 Pro Max has a 2.5x zoom telephoto lens and the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra has a 5x zoom telephoto lens.
With good lighting conditions, the iPhone 12 Pro Max cannot even beat the digital zoom of the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra in photos with 3x or 4x zoom. This is due to the fact that Samsung has a digital zoom enhancement, using the main 108 MP sensor to crop and improve the photo.
The situation changes when the environment starts to get darker. Under these conditions, the iPhone 12 Pro Max can then take better pictures in the zoom range between 2.5x and 4.9x.
When the zoom reaches 5x, the Note 20 Ultra’s telephoto lens is activated and it takes the best pictures again. From that zoom on, the iPhone has no chance, so the Note 20 Ultra continues to advantage at 7x, 10x, 20x or more.
And we have the final score of 8 points for the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra, 7 points for the iPhone 12 Pro Max and 6 points for the Pixel 5.
Although the Samsung smartphone is the winner of this comparison, I need to make some considerations. If you like taking selfies, the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra is the least suitable, with the iPhone and the Pixel doing better at it. If you want a night photo with bright colors and ready to publish, the Pixel 5 is for sure the right one. Do you like a more realistic photo, to edit the way you like it before publishing? The iPhone 12 Pro Max is the best and has the best sharpness among the photos.
This camera comparison is for you to understand which smartphone you prefer. This final score indicates that the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra delivers excellent photos ready to be used without editing, especially with the ultrawide lens. It is also the best to simulate that beautiful blur in the background of the image, in addition to delivering a greater variety of photos thanks to the telephoto lens.