Photography

Which budget phone has the best camera? We tested four to find the answer

Buy a smartphone that costs $ 800, $ 900, or $ 1,000, and the camera is almost certain to be excellent — packed full of features and able to take pictures in all different situations and environments. Can the same be said when you spend $ 400 or less? To find out, we put the latest reasonably-priced smartphone darling — Google’s impressive Pixel 3a — against three other Android phones that cost about the same or less, all equally eager for your attention.

The Pixel 3a faces strong competition from the Motorola One Vision, the Sony Xperia 10 Plus, and the Honor 20. I took the four away for the weekend to the Isle of Wight in the south of England, snapping a series of general vacation-style photos to see which I’d want to keep in my album after the trip was over.

The cameras

The $ 400 (400 British pounds) Google Pixel 3a has the same 12.2-megapixel single-lens camera on it as the full-price Pixel 3, complete with optical and electronic stabilization, an f/1.8 aperture, and all the artificial intelligence features including Night Sight (though it is missing the Visual Core chip for faster image processing). The selfie camera has 8-megapixels.

Motorola has put two lenses on the back of the 270 British pound ($ 300) One Vision. The main camera has 48-megapixels with an f/1.7 aperture and optical image stabilization. It uses quad-pixel technology to combine its pixels into one, single 12-megapixel shot for maximum light sensitivity. Software enhances low-light photos with Night Vision mode, and there’s a second 5-megapixel camera to add depth to bokeh images. The selfie camera has 25 megapixels. This phone isn’t available in the U.S.

pixel 3a honor 20 xperia 10 plus motorola one vision camera shootout onevision comp header
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

The $ 430 (350 British pounds) Sony Xperia 10 Plus also has a dual-lens camera. The main lens has 12 megapixels and an f/1.75 aperture, while the second lens has 8 megapixels and an f/2.4 aperture. Unlike the other phones, it does not have a night mode. It does have a special feature to take pictures in 21:9 aspect ratio to match its screen.

Finally, the 400 pound ($ 505) Honor 20 has three camera lenses, and is the only one in our test that can take wide-angle shots. Like the One Vision, the main camera has 48 megapixels and an f/1.8 aperture. The wide-angle lens has 16-megapixels, and the depth lens has 2-megapixels. Honor’s software suite includes a Night mode, various bokeh modes, and lots of AI features for scene recognition and more. Like the One Vision, it’s also not sold in the U.S..

Disclaimer

I have not subjected these photos to an in-depth, scientific comparison. I’ve picked the winners based on which images look “best” and the most technically impressive to my eye. Much of this will be subjective, but I’ve aimed to find the shot which is the most shareable, as this is a large reason we all take photos in the first place.

All photos were taken in auto mode, aside from tapping to select an area of focus in certain situations, or using a low-light mode or portrait mode. I did not take multiple shots either: One with each camera, in each situation. That’s often all the chance we have, especially on vacation, so each camera needs to work perfectly every time.

Fisherman’s house

This picture of a beach-side fisherman’s house was taken close to dusk, but without night mode on any of the phones. The Xperia 10 Plus’s shot is the most accurate photo, in terms of the lighting conditions at the the time, but this does not make it the best example. The image is too dull, with an overly blue tint, and less than natural colors.

The Motorola One Vision falls next. Although the photo is good, the color of the sand and pebbles is too grey, making the end result a little lifeless. It’s a tough choice between the Honor 20 and Pixel 3a’s pictures, and I really like both examples. The Pixel 3a also makes the ground grey, compared to the more realistic color in the Honor 20’s photo.

However, the Pixel’s 3a’s handling of the sky is superb, adding real atmosphere that was representative of the time of day. The Honor 20’s brightness reveals more detail in certain areas, but the overexposure of the sky is distracting. Too close to call.

Winner: Draw between Pixel 3a and Honor 20

Seaside

The sunny beach scene is a traditional shot almost all of us will have taken at some point, and all cameras should be able to handle it well. Sure enough, all four are great, and we’d be happy to share any of them. There are subtle differences though. The Xperia 10 Plus amps up the saturation with very bright greens and blues, at the slight expense of the color of the beach.

It’s a tie between the Honor and the Motorola photos, both of which have similar tones and color management, especially on the trees and beach, although the rocks, sea, and sky vary more. Each is great, but they can’t match the perfect balance of all these aspects from the Pixel 3a photo. This is how it looked to my eye in real life, plus the detail on the pebbly beach, and the gorgeous texture on the rocks.

Winner: Pixel 3a

The bus

A staple of British seaside resorts, this classic open-top bus was best captured against the blue sky in portrait orientation. The Xperia 10 Plus underexposes, leaving too much darkness around the wheels and the fence in the background. The One Vision goes a little in the other direction, overexposing the sky to reveal more detail in the darker areas.

Once more, it’s very close between the Pixel 3a and the Honor 20. This time it’s going to the Honor 20, which balances the exposure more effectively for a bright blue sky, sparkling white coachwork, with detail in the wheel arches and along the fence in the background. However, the parking lot surface was closer to the color in the Pixel 3a’s photo.

Winner: Honor 20

Steam train cabin

In what’s becoming the standard, the Xperia 10 Plus falls first with a misty, overexposed, and unattractive shot. Although bizarrely, it did a good job with the trees in the background. The Motorola One Vision is also relegated to third place again, with a shot that’s too orange and lacking detail in crucial areas.

To illustrate where, let’s skip on to the winner — the Pixel 3a. Just look at the filth. This is a working steam train, usually filled with steam (obviously, smoke, coal, and sweat. The Pixel 3a captures this superbly, with more patina visible on the roof and brass fixtures than the Honor 20’s photo, which is also very good.

Winner: Pixel 3a

Open train door

I used the portrait and aperture mode to take this photo. The One Vision didn’t get the color right, returning a very different shade of green from the others (and real life), and also got confused with the blur around the door edges. The Pixel 3a is wonderfully detailed — just look at that wood grain — but gets confused with the blur around the window frame, ruining the look of the photo. However, the bokeh effect is pronounced, and it did so using only one camera lens.

The Xperia 10 Plus does a brilliant job. The blur is just right, the edge recognition is good, and the color is accurate. In reality, the color was probably in-between it and the Honor 20’s photo. The Honor 20 is also excellent here, with the dedicated Aperture mode rather than just a portrait mode helping it create and atmospheric photo. The Sony required me to get in close, while I could step back and take a wider shot with the Honor 20, resulting in a more cohesive image.

Winner: Honor 20

Seaweed

Another shot taken around dusk, and without night mode. The Xperia 10 Plus shows the truest example of the conditions, but misses out on revealing detail. The winner here becomes obvious when you zoom in to look at the seaweed on the vertical piece of wood. It’s perfectly in focus in the Pixel 3a’s photo, but blurred in the Honor 20’s and the One Vision’s.

The One Vision gets even worse when you look at the lower section of the image, while the Honor 20 gets better. However, the Pixel 3a’s detail in the clouds, and cooler color palette make it the more appealing image over the Honor 20’s great photo.

Winner: Pixel 3a

Spire

These shots were taken with a 2x zoom, or as close as I could get to it on phones like the Pixel 3a, which doesn’t have an automatic hybrid zoom function. The incredibly blue sky and stone work was overexposed by the Motorola One Vision, leaving the photo too wasted out to consider here.

The Honor 20’s photo is the most immediately shareable due to the saturation and visual pop, but it’s the Sony photo that edges a win over the Pixel 3a for me. The Xperia 10 Plus’s photo is very sharp, even zoomed right in and when examining the seagull that flew into the frame, and the overall brightness doesn’t ruin the atmosphere either.

Winner: Sony Xperia 10 Plus

Amusements

Taken around 10 p.m., it was dark along the seafront with the only illumination coming from bright streetlights and the interior of the arcade itself. These are difficult conditions, and the Xperia 10 Plus’s lack of a night mode showed how a normal camera would capture the scene. Its noisy, unbalanced, and not a photo you’d want to keep.

The remaining three are very hard to separate, and their respective night modes capture great photos. However, it’s the One Vision picture that edges the win, due to the stark white of the building, and the color balance. The Pixel 3a’s picture is sharper deep inside the arcade, but the overall atmosphere is less enticing than the One Vision. The Honor 20 straddles the two. I was happy with all three shots.

Winner: Motorola One Vision

Garden Bridge

Another night shot taken using night modes where available. The Xperia 10 Plus shows you how dark the scene was, despite still being relatively early in the evening. It cannot compete with the performance of the others. The Honor 20’s photo was blurry, having seemingly failed to focus on any one area, so it gets eliminated next.

The One Vision’s photo is very bright to the point where the scene gets washed out. The Pixel 3a gets everything right — the green foliage, the yellow lights, the blue lighting in the top left, and a wonderful mystic atmosphere.

Winner: Pixel 3a

Clock

Moving inside, how would the HDR modes handle a clock set in front of a bright window? This photo should be all about the clock, rather than an atmosphere, and therefore capturing the detail is essential. There is an obvious winner: The Pixel 3a. The One Vision gets closer to it than the other two, but the Google phone overflows with detail, and presents it not only sharply, but also gets the background in focus and correctly colored too. A really incredible job.

Winner: Pixel 3a

Cake

This is a basic photo that all cameras should handle well, but most failed here. The Xperia 10 Plus’s cake is too dark and the background too yellow, while the Honor 20 activated its AI-controlled Food setting, giving the cake an odd vignette making it appear burned and the chocolate almost black.

This was a similar problem with the Pixel’s photo, which was a shame as the rest is excellent. The white plate against the table top is accurate, for example. The One Vision gets the chocolate color right, but the cake itself is too bright, and there isn’t as much detail as the Pixel 3a’s photo. The Pixel 3a will win, but none of these photos are great.

Winner: Pixel 3a

Selfie

I used portrait mode on all four phones here, but the Xperia didn’t really blur the background at all, and instead used a much more aggressive beauty effect to smooth out my skin. It also over exposes the background, but gets the color of my t-shirt right. The One Vision also washes out the scene, and the blur effect is messy around the top of my head.

I like the Honor 20’s selfie. It’s very sharp, the background is blurred just enough, and it hasn’t added any beauty effects without me asking. However, there is an odd halo around my head, and the edge recognition is very sharp, making the photo look a little unrealistic. That said, the color and contrast is excellent, and I like the overall look.

The Pixel 3a’s edge recognition is much more natural, and even though the blur is far stronger, it doesn’t look unnatural. It’s the photo I would share after a little editing, although the Honor 20’s photo comes a very close second.

Winner: Pixel 3a

Conclusion

Which phone has won? It’s seven wins and one draw for the Google Pixel 3a, making it the runaway winner here. The Motorola One Vision and the Xperia 10 Plus won a single category each, while the Honor 20 took two and a draw with the Pixel 3a. While it’s perhaps no surprise the Pixel 3a has won, the comprehensiveness of its victory is unexpected.

The Honor 20 and the Motorola One Vision have good cameras, and I’ve taken shots for the respective reviews that are shareable and visually impressive. The inability to match the Pixel 3a is slightly surprising, given how good they can be. The One Vision should be commended for its performance though, given it’s substantially cheaper than any other phone here.

Sony’s Xperia 10 Plus continues to disappoint. Several software updates arrived between my review and this camera test, and although the camera is better than before, it still doesn’t deliver consistently good results. It’s the most expensive phone here, yet cannot come close to matching the others.

Based on this test, the Pixel 3a was the camera phone that took the best photos on my vacation, and that’s what most of us really want — reliable, shareable photos we want to keep.

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Photography – Digital Trends

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