We took our seven favorite smartphones to Japan for the ultimate camera shootout

Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

Smartphone photography isn’t just getting better, it’s getting smarter too. In 2018, we saw smartphone makers tackle low-light photography, an area where these cameras have historically struggled. Some sought solutions through hardware, others through software and artificial intelligence. Regardless of the approach, the results are impressive, with 2018’s smartphones offering some of the best low-light photography we’ve seen yet.

Now it’s time to find the best. Just like in 2017, we took our favorite smartphones of 2018 on a trip for an ultimate camera showdown. The venue for 2018 is Japan, and the candidates are the Samsung Galaxy Note 9, Huawei Mate 20 Pro, iPhone XS Max, iPhone XR, Google Pixel 3, LG V40 ThinQ, and OnePlus 6T. We’re quite satisfied with our picks this year, and if you’re wondering why the Galaxy S9 isn’t present, it’s because it shares an identical camera setup with the Note 9 (specifically the S9 Plus); the Note 9 simply differentiates with a scene-recognition mode. Also, we didn’t test the iPhone XR in every single category here, because it also shares the exact same single-lens camera as the iPhone XS and XS Max.

Disclaimer: For this test, we captured photos as the average person would — just by tapping on the shutter button. Sometimes we’ll tap on a subject to focus, but we wanted to make sure results are similar to what most users can expect when they take photos with these phones. There were no tripods involved, no editing, and no use of manual modes, which some of these cameras provide. Additionally, our picks — which we tried to make with objectivity and facts — are still subjective. You may find yourself disagreeing with a few choices, and that’s all right. In the end, it’s the photograph you like that wins.

We analyzed these photos on a professional-grade monitor with excellent color calibration, so photos may look a little different based on the screen you’re using to view them.

Shrine at Yoyogi Park

Our trip begins at a shrine in Yoyogi Park, Tokyo, with a theme you’ll come across throughout this photo comparison: Almost all of these photos are good and shareable. Smartphone photography has excelled dramatically, so we’re really nitpicking here, but there are often some clear standouts as well.

All of these phones exposed the underside of the gate’s roof well against the bright sky. But our least favorite are from the LG V40 ThinQ and the iPhone XS Max. The sky is an unnatural blue in some areas, veering on overexposed, and the V40 makes the wood too red instead of brown. The OnePlus 6T follows with a similarly reddish hue to the wood. Our favorites are from the Mate 20 Pro, Galaxy Note 9, and Pixel 3, and out of these it’s the Pixel 3 photo we’d share. It doesn’t expose the underside of the roof as much as the other two — just enough — but it has the best blue sky, and the wood is the right color of brown. The Mate 20 Pro photo is excellent, but the sky isn’t as blue as we’d like, and the wood is still not as dark brown as it should be. The Note 9 suffers the same problem. These differences are small, and ultimately subjective as well. You can’t go wrong sharing any of these photos.

Winner: Google Pixel 3

Mount Fuji

We now traverse to Lake Kawaguchiko near Mount Fuji, and we run into the same problem as the last photo. All of these photos are great. Smartphone cameras — from cheap to expensive — all shine in daylight most of the time. Our winner here is the iPhone XS Max.

The Note 9 overexposes one side of the image, while the Pixel 3 underexposes the hill of trees on the left. The bushes in the foreground of the Mate 20 Pro’s photo are an unnatural tint, and we don’t like the sky in the V40 ThinQ’s photo. The OnePlus 6T comes very close to the top spot here; the iPhone XS Max’s photo wins because it looks even better. The trees are well-exposed, the sky looks beautiful, Mount Fuji’s snow-capped peak has good contrast, and the bushes in the foreground are the right color. But as we mentioned earlier, any of these photos are worth sharing.

Winner: iPhone XS Max

Maple Corridor

This was a tricky shot for all the phones, because there’s a certain look we wanted to capture, but the lighting and color of the leaves weren’t popping as we wanted. This is an example of a scenario where we wanted punchier colors than real life. The Pixel 3 offers the most realistic photo, but it doesn’t look too interesting visually. The leaves are dull. The Note 9 fares a bit better with the leaves in the trench, but the sky is too overexposed; the same rings true for the Mate 20 Pro. The LG v40 does a good job here, but it consistently delivers a sky that looks unnaturally blue.

It’s down to the OnePlus 6T and the iPhone XS Max, and we’re giving it to the latter again. The 6T overexposes the sky, and some parts of the trench are too dark. The iPhone photo is well-exposed, and colors shine through and pop. It has perhaps a slightly too yellow tone, but it’s still the photo we’d share of the lot.

Winner: iPhone XS Max

Food: Natto

Natto is a fermented soybean dish that’s traditionally eaten at breakfast in Japan. It’s an acquired taste, as we’ve learned, and the texture is sticky and slimy. It’s served here with spring onions on top. Our phones excelled here, but we have to put the OnePlus 6T last. The light reflected on the bowl and the beans are blue, and look strange.

Our favorite photo in terms of detail is easily the Pixel 3. It looks brilliantly sharp, but it’s not our favorite overall because the color temperature is too cool. The V40’s photo is too saturated, and the Note 9’s bowl is too yellow. Our favorites come in this order: The Mate 20 Pro first, then the iPhone XS Max, and then the Pixel 3. The iPhone photo looks natural, with good color and exposure, but the photo still looks a little flat and lacks contrast.  The Mate 20 Pro’s photo isn’t as yellow as others, but it’s still punchy and sharp, making the natto look enticing.

Winner: Huawei Mate 20 Pro

Food: Gyoza

Gyoza are dumplings with pork and vegetables, and we ate some at a place called Harajuku Gyozaro in Tokyo. Most of these photos make the gyoza look appetizing, but one phone come last, surprisingly: The iPhone XS Max. The dumplings have an incredibly dull shine, almost looking a little gray, and they don’t look inviting at all. The Mate 20 Pro has the best white balance, but the dumplings don’t look as delicious; zoom in and details aren’t as sharp as well.

The OnePlus 6T and LG V40 ThinQ photos are sharp, but the color temperature is too warm. The Pixel 3 comes close, but it’s the Galaxy Note 9’s photo that has the best detail on the gyoza, while maintaining good color and solid white balance.

Winner: Samsung Galaxy Note 9

Kyoto temple at dusk

We’re now in Kyoto, at a temple named Higashiyama Jisho-ji. It’s around sunset, and this area had little light left. There are two clear winners: The Pixel 3, and the iPhone XS Max. The Note 9 doesn’t do a terrible job, but details are quite fuzzy all around. The Mate 20 Pro overexposes the sky, and  while details are stronger than in the Note 9 photo, it doesn’t quite match the Pixel 3 or iPhone XS. The V40 photo has great colors and it’s well exposed, it’s just a shame that the photo is completely blurry. The OnePlus 6T also makes a surprisingly strong effort here, but the sky is overexposed.

The iPhone XS Max photo is incredibly dark, yet close to the winning spot because detail is incredibly strong. But the Pixel 3 manages to deliver a photo that’s well-exposed and colorful, with strong details. It easily takes the win. (Note: We did not use the “night mode” some phone cameras provide; you can see a comparison of those below.) 

Winner: Google Pixel 3

Streets of Osaka

We’ve traveled now to the streets of Osaka. It’s hard to find much fault with most of these photos as they’re all great, but those from two phones shine above the others: the Pixel 3 and the Mate 20 Pro. The Note 9’s image loses some detail in some areas, such as the pavement to the left side. The iPhone XS Max’s photo isn’t as sharp, and all the lights have a strange glow. The V40 and OnePlus 6T do a good job here, but the color temperature is too reddish.

The Pixel 3 and the Mate 20 Pro deliver the strongest detail with good color, but we’re giving the win to Google for one specific reason: The Mate 20 Pro’s photo is over-sharpened. It looks heavily edited, an unnatural look that prevents us from wanting to share it.

Winner: Google Pixel 3 

Tokyo skyline

We’re back in Tokyo now, at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building observatory in Shinjuku. It’s where you can take a look at Tokyo’s skyline without paying a fee. We’re happy with most of the photos here, but it’s the Mate 20 Pro that takes the cake. It gives us the photo we want, with as many shimmering city lights as possible. The lights have a slight reddish hue, but we love the inky blacks throughout the picture.

The Pixel 3 photo looks good, but it’s too grainy (especially around the sky on the right side), and it’s not as sharp. The Note 9 photo looks great, but we’d have liked more contrast. The iPhone XS Max photo is on the yellow side, it’s grainy, and not as detailed. The V40 veers on being overexposed, and while the OnePlus 6T makes a strong effort here, it’s grainy in some areas, and not as detailed.

Winner: Huawei Mate 20 Pro

Night Sight vs. Night Mode vs. Nightscape

Some smartphone manufacturers introduced a night mode in their phones this year to help capture better low-light photography. It’s a separate mode you tap on in the camera app, and it essentially takes multiple photos in a longer exposure before stitching the best ones together. The Google Pixel 3’s mode is called Night Sight, the Mate 20 Pro uses Night Mode, and the OnePlus 6T uses Nightscape. We’ve compared Night Sight and Night Mode before, so here’s a look at all three. We used Night Sight at the same locations we’ve capture before above, so you can directly compare them with results from the other phones as well.

First, we’re back at the temple in Kyoto, and there’s easily a clear winner: The Pixel 3. The change Night Sight brings is almost magical: The photo illuminates all colors accurately, and detail is stunning for how dark it was at the time. The Mate 20 Pro does a much better job with the sky when compared to its non-Night Mode photo, but details are a bit too blotchy. We’re not quite sure what happened with the OnePlus 6T’s photo, as we like its normal photo more than the Nightscape one. It’s simply blurry, and the sky is overexposed.

The second set is back at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government building, and it’s the Pixel 3’s Night Sight that impresses again. It delivers better blacks, a much more colorful photo that pops with city lights, and it’s not as grainy as before. The Mate 20 Pro’s Night Mode does a good job here, but contrast isn’t too strong, and the yellow color temperature is overwhelming. It does illuminate more items than the Pixel 3, but that’s not necessarily a good thing here. We like the Pixel 3’s blacks because it makes the city lights look punchier. The OnePlus 6T’s photo is better than its normal one — certainly delivering a beautiful sky — but the color temperature is also a little too warm for our tastes.

Winner: Google Pixel 3 

Optical zoom vs. Digital zoom: Tokyo Tower

Most smartphones have a second camera that offers 2× optical zoom. In this test, that’s the Galaxy Note 9, the LG V40 ThinQ, and the iPhone XS Max. The Mate 20 Pro goes a step further with 3× optical zoom. It means you can get closer to the subject, without losing image quality. The OnePlus 6T and the Google Pixel 3 do not have optical zoom; instead they digitally crop the original photo to zoom in, so image quality suffers. We’ve still added them here for comparison’s sake. OnePlus offers a 2× button as the iPhone does, which is what we’ve used, and you can double tap the viewfinder on the Pixel 3 to zoom in quickly, which is the zoom level we opted for. It’s likely a little more zoomed in than the other photos.

We’re back in Tokyo looking at the iconic Tokyo Tower. Of the four phones with optical zoom, we like the iPhone XS Max photo the most. The Note 9 has a tough time handling the white parts of the tower, though we like everything else about it. The Mate 20 Pro muddles the sky too much, but it does zoom in the most; the V40 has weaker details and a strange glow around the tower that makes it look unnatural.

The Pixel 3 and the OnePlus 6T hold their own here, though detail is a little fuzzier on the latter phone’s photo. The Pixel 3 uses A.I. with a feature called Super Res Zoom to enhance the photo at higher zoom levels, which is why it looks surprisingly good for the level of digital zoom. It can’t match the quality optical zoom provides, though, and the iPhone XS Max wins.

Winner: iPhone XS Max

Optical zoom vs. Digital zoom: Imperial Palace

Let’s bring the iPhone XR into the fun. It has the same single-lens camera as the iPhone XS, but it lacks a secondary camera. So we’re zooming in approximately to the 2× mark — which is what we did for the Pixel 3 and OnePlus 6T here as well. These photos capture the Imperial Palace in the Chiyoda Ward of Tokyo.

Comparing the optical zoom photos, the iPhone XS Max and the Mate 20 Pro come out on top. The V40 and the Note 9 don’t have the strongest detail, and the V40 photo is a little underexposed. We like the Mate 20 Pro photo best, solely because it zooms in the most and maintains excellent quality, allowing us to frame the photo better.

The Pixel 3’s photo is shareable, but it looks heavily edited. The OnePlus 6T lacks detail and contrast. The iPhone XR delivers excellent colors, but the photo just never looks sharp in any area if you zoom in. It’s still an impressive effort from the Pixel 3 and the XR.

Winner: Huawei Mate 20 Pro

Optical zoom vs. Digital zoom: Skyline

Back with the original group of phones (no iPhone XR), we’re at the top of the Tokyo Tower, capturing the skyline during the day. Our pick is the Galaxy Note 9, which delivers good details and color. The iPhone XS Max has a strange blue tint; the Mate 20 Pro’s photo isn’t sharp at all; and the V40’s photo looks over-sharpened — look at the trees below the buildings in the center.

The Pixel 3 makes a good effort, but it’s not colorful enough. The OnePlus 6T surprises with a great photo as well, but it can’t match the detail from the Note 9.

Winner: Samsung Galaxy Note 9

Zooming in to the max

You really should never zoom in all the way on your smartphone to take a picture. It’s cropping the photo, which means you will get terrible image quality. Yet people do it all the time, so we wanted to see how this type of photo fares — especially with Google’s Super Res Zoom using A.I. to enhance zoomed in photos. Our favorites came down to the Mate 20 Pro, and the Pixel 3: They simply have the best detail and color, even if they both are still photos we would not share.

The Note 9 is overexposed, and the rest are simply far too blotchy.

Winner: Huawei Mate 20 Pro

Wide-angle showdown: Harajuku

Let’s give most of the phones a break here and take a look at the Mate 20 Pro and the LG V40 ThinQ, the only two in this list with wide-angle rear cameras. This feature lets you capture far more in a scene, boosting the camera’s versatility. These photos capture a narrow but busy street in Harajuku, Tokyo.

Both are great, but the LG V40 ThinQ photo is the one we’d share. The Mate 20 Pro spreads a warm hue throughout the photo, whereas the V40 photo looks more colorful and natural. The Mate 20 Pro photo is better exposed — the sky isn’t as white towards the back — and detail is a tad stronger, but the color tint puts us off. The V40 also delivers less distortion on the edges of the photo.

Winner: LG V40 ThinQ

Wide-angle showdown: Yoyogi Park temple

We’re back at the temple gate in Yoyogi Park. Compare this photo to the one from all the phones earlier, and you can see how much more you get in this photo using a wide angle lens. We love both photos captured here, and while the Mate 20 Pro has a slight reddish hue throughout again, we like it more for the sharper details. Just look at the ground, and you can see far more texture than the V40 ThinQ photo.

We’d say the Mate 20 Pro’s wide-angle camera usually wins out in terms of detail, but the V40 offers slightly better white balance usually, and less distortion.

Winner: Huawei Mate 20 Pro


Selfies are important, and here’s one we took in Tokyo at night near the Chiyoda Ward. The winner is easily the Pixel 3. It has the best detail and color, and illuminates everything perfectly. The Note 9 and iPhone XS Max photos are too fuzzy, and the V40 photo is overexposed, with unflattering skin tone colors. The Mate 20 Pro and OnePlus 6T deliver good photos, but they’re simply not as sharp as the Pixel 3’s selfie.

Winner: Google Pixel 3 

Portrait Mode: Tsukiji Market

Portrait Mode is a feature that’s available on almost every smartphone, whether it costs $ 250 or $ 1,000 (and here’s how to get the most out of it). Most phones use a second camera while a few just use software to create a blur effect behind a subject. We’re including the iPhone XR here, because it takes different Portrait Mode photos with the single-lens camera than the iPhone XS and XS Max.

There are four good photos in our first test, and they come from the Pixel 3, the iPhone XS, the iPhone XR, and the Mate 20 Pro. The Pixel 3 makes the most mistakes with the blur cutout — look at the girl’s boots in the background. It also has a slightly warm hue in the background that we don’t like as much. The iPhone XR has the weakest blur, and it messes up the blur on the skewer. The Mate 20 Pro and iPhone XS photos are excellent, but it ultimately comes down to skin tone. The iPhone XS Max’s photo has the best skin tone out of all the phones here, making the photo look more inviting. That gives it a very narrow win over the Mate 20 Pro.

Winner: iPhone XS Max

Portrait Mode: Low Light

Portrait Mode can be hit or miss when it’s dark out. We’re not fans of photos from the Note 9, iPhone XS, OnePlus 6T, or the LG V40. They’re either too grainy, too fuzzy with details, or too overexposed. The Mate 20 Pro’s photo comes close to winning, but the subject’s face is too blurry.

It comes down to the Pixel 3 and the iPhone XR. We love the Pixel 3’s brightness and color, but there’s simply too much grain in the subject’s face. The iPhone XR impresses with detail, but it’s much darker. But the iPhone XR’s problem is easy to fix with a few edits, which is why we’re giving it the win. The detail really is stunning.

Winner: iPhone XR

Portrait Mode selfies

Who doesn’t love using Portrait Mode for selfies? All these phones have the capability, but the Pixel 3 comes out on top for offering the best detail and color. The other phones fall for similar reasons as our original selfie test.

Winner: Google Pixel 3 

Wide angle selfies

Only two phones in our group have a wide-angle camera on the front: The Pixel 3 and the LG V40 ThinQ. Also for transparency’s sake, this photo isn’t from Japan, but back home in Brooklyn at night. Wide angle cameras on the front of the phone are perfect for selfies with more than one person, or if you want to get more of the background in the shot. The winner is easy to choose here. The Pixel 3 delivers stronger details, better color, and it’s far better exposed than the V40’s blurry selfie. Pit these selfies against those in the original selfie comparison, and you can see how much more the wide angle selfie camera can capture.

Winner: Google Pixel 3 


This camera comparison is one of the toughest we’ve ever done, because most of the photos from our tests have come out great. Even the $ 550 OnePlus 6T impressed us with its quality and ability to match against its more expensive peers. There’s still work to be done, but 2018 has been yet another excellent year for smartphone cameras.

In our test, the Google Pixel 3 narrowly snatched a win over the Mate 20 Pro — that’s if you include or exclude the specific tests such as Night Sight or the Wide Angle cameras. Again, you may have preferred other photos than our picks as it’s all so subjective; one person’s trash is another’s treasure, right? We do think this test reaffirms that the Pixel 3 and the Mate 20 Pro are the best camera phones you can buy right now. We’re excited to see what Google and Huawei have in store for us in 2019, and we’re looking forward to seeing the improvements made by all the other smartphone manufacturers.

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