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Phones

Epic iPhone X, Galaxy S9 Plus, Huawei P20 Pro, Pixel 2 camera showdown

One of these top-notch phones has three rear cameras. One has...one. But the results of our mega smartphone camera test could surprise you.

Angela Lang/CNET

Leica is to the photography world what Rolex is to watches. It's synonymous with a heritage of high-quality cameras, lenses and romanticised photographic experiences in exotic locales.

It's also a name that the Huawei P20 Pro phone proudly bears on its back. In 2014 the two companies partnered to fine-tune the imaging process and optics on Huawei phones. But it wasn't Leica's involvement that got me excited about the Huawei P20 Pro. Instead, it was the three cameras on the back of the phone.

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I tested four of the best phone cameras you can get: the Huawei P20 Pro, iPhone X, Samsung Galaxy S9 Plus and Google Pixel 2.

Angela Lang/CNET

Now that dual rear cameras are commonplace, the idea of three seems like a natural evolution. I imagine one day there will be phones with four or five rear cameras in our pockets.

I snapped this photo of the Wu-Tang Clan with the Huawei P20 Pro and its 3x optical zoom.

Patrick Holland/CNET

The Huawei P20 Pro is the first phone to incorporate a trio of rear cameras and use them to get 3x optical zoom and add more detail to photos. But are three lens really better than two? Or even one?

To figure that out, I tested the Huawei P20 Pro's three rear cameras and compared them with the dual rear cameras on the iPhone X and the Samsung Galaxy S9 Plus, as well as the single rear camera on the Google Pixel 2. No selfie cameras here.

Camera comparison chart

Phone Rear camera 1 Rear camera 2 Rear camera 3 Optical Zoom
Huawei P20 Pro 40-megapixel f/1.8 20-megapixel monochromatic f/1.6 8-megapixel telephoto f/2.4 3x
iPhone X 12-megapixel f/1.8 12-megapixel telephoto f/2.4 none 2x
Galaxy S9 Plus 12-megapixel f/1.5 - 2.4 12-megapixel telephoto f/2.4 none 2x
Pixel 2 12-megapixel f/1.8 none none none

I used the phones in a number of real-world settings and learned a ton about each. If you want the phone with the best optical zoom and low light performance, go for the Huawei P20 Pro. If you want photos with plenty of detail and a wide dynamic range, grab the Pixel 2. For outstanding video, the iPhone X is the way to go. If you want photos with the least amount of image noise and solid low-light performance, pick the Galaxy S9 Plus. And if you want the best photos and videos overall… well, you'll have to read on.

For more photo comparisons from all four phones, check out the gallery below.

Get to know the Huawei P20 Pro first

We've thoroughly tested the cameras on the Pixel 2, iPhone X and Samsung Galaxy S9 Plus before. So let's spend a little time with the Huawei. While its three rear cameras initially caught my attention, the Huawei P20 Pro has a slew of other features to maximize its imaging prowess.

It uses artificial intelligence to identify and optimize scenes. Huawei calls this feature Master AI. It isn't unique: the LG V35 ThinQOnePlus 6 and the newly announced Samsung Note 9 do something similar. The Huawei P20 Pro has optimizations for 19 categories including greenery, food, cats and fireworks.

For example, if you frame a picture of a landscape, a "Blue Sky" label pops up on the screen. Then the sky's preview color turns a more vibrant blue. If you don't like the optimization, you can dismiss it. Below are two photos, one taken with Master AI turned on and the other with it off.

The Huawei P20 Pro can take 40-megapixel photos, which look pretty amazing. But a 10-megapixel mode is on by default that combines information from pixels to reduce noise, and increase sharpness. Huawei makes it easy to switch between these sizes, which I recommend. For landscape photos, I prefer the 40-megapixel photos. But for indoors, I switch to the camera to 10 megapixels.

The Huawei P20 Pro also has three color modes (standard, vivid and smooth), which mimic ones found on Leica film cameras. These modes can only be switched before taking a photo. I found myself using "smooth colors" the most frequently because it resulted in the most appealing pictures. Note that Samsung offers similar modes, but they aren't fine-tuned by Leica.

Google Pixel 2 takes stellar photos

While all four of these phones take fantastic photos, each renders scenes differently. The Pixel 2 and iPhone X have top-notch dynamic range, capturing details in the highlights and shadows. The Huawei P20 Pro and the iPhone X render photos high in contrast and rich colors for a vivid and punchy look. The Galaxy S9 Plus emphasizes brightness above all else. The Pixel 2 and its software create photos with tons of detail. Your personal tastes might find one approach more appealing than the others.

In the picture below of the Women's Building in San Francisco, photos from the Pixel 2 and Galaxy S9 Plus are the best exposed. I also like the balanced way the Pixel 2 handles the colors of the building. The iPhone X picture pops with contrast and saturation. And the Pixel 2 renders the sky most accurately. The Huawei P20 Pro's photo looks a bit dark.

Four photos of the Women's Building in San Francisco.

Patrick Holland/CNET

I noticed that the Huawei P20 Pro, like in the photo above, has a tendency to crush shadows to black, losing details in the process.

After shooting hundreds of photos with each phone, I had so many keepers to choose from. But more than once, I was drawn to the Pixel 2's photos.

Photos winner

Whether it was landscapes, street scenes, friends or architecture, photos from the Pixel 2 were full of definition and protected details in the highlights and shadows. Though the iPhone X deserves a nod for its vibrant colors.

This photo of a motorcycle and sidecar was taken at dusk with the Pixel 2.

Patrick Holland/CNET

Huawei P20 Pro Night mode sees in the dark

There are times, like in a dimly lit restaurant, when these phones are pushed to their limits. However, the Huawei P20 Pro and the Galaxy S9 Plus have a couple tricks to tackle these darker environments better than the iPhone X and Pixel 2.

Night mode on the Huawei P20 Pro takes a series of photos over 4 seconds and uses stabilization to offset any hand shakes that blur the shot. This long exposure lets in more light and the final result is a single photo with wonderful clarity and relatively little noise in the shadows. I can't believe I captured a low-light shot like the one below with a phone.

Two photos of the Victoria Theater in San Francisco. The left one was taken with the Huawei P20 Pro in standard mode. The right was taken in Night mode.

Patrick Holland/CNET

A downside of using Night mode was motion blur from my subject. In the photo above, the trio of women walking out of the theater created a blurry streak.

The Galaxy S9 Plus has a dual aperture on its standard camera that can switch from f/2.4 to f/1.5 aperture -- the widest on any phone. Because of that, it produced super clean photos in low light. Also, I didn't have to hold still for 4 seconds like I did with the Huawei P20 Pro. The drawback to the Galaxy S9 Plus' approach, however, is that low-light photos looked soft. They didn't have the best dynamic range and couldn't clip highlights (such as light sources).

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This photo of Youth In A Roman Field performing at Hotel Utah threw the Galaxy S9 Plus a double whammy. It's not only low light, but the available light was saturated red. I'm impressed how well this photo came out.

Patrick Holland/CNET

The Pixel 2 and iPhone X do fine in low light. Both rely heavily on noise reduction software which, in the iPhone's case, occasionally made photos look like a waxy oil painting. The dynamic range on the Pixel 2 can produce solid low-light photos but they're riddled with image noise when compared to photos taken with Huawei P20 Pro's Night mode or the Galaxy S9 Plus' f/1.5 aperture.

Low-light winner

The Huawei P20 Pro's Night mode handled high-contrast, low-light photos better than the other phones.

iPhone X portrait mode photos pack bokeh and sharpness

The iPhone X and the Galaxy S9 Plus really shine with portrait mode (aka Live Focus on the Samsung). Photos from both make the depth effect really pop, and closest match what I'd get with a larger sensor camera with a fast lens.

Here's a comparison of portrait mode from the iPhone X, Galaxy S9 Plus, Pixel 2 and Huawei P20 Pro.

Patrick Holland/CNET

Pixel 2 portraits look dramatic, especially because of how much detail it captures in people's faces. Occasionally though, the razor-thin edge between the foreground and background gave Pixel 2 portraits a bad "Photoshop" feel.

Portraits from the Huawei P20 Pro made people's faces look flat even when using the 3D lighting effects that are similar to Portrait Lighting effects on the iPhone X.

Portrait mode winner

The iPhone X consistently produces vibrant and flattering portraits with nice sharpness in people's faces and excellent focus fall-off from the foreground to the background. The Pixel 2 deserves an honorable mention here, especially since it can produce highly detailed portraits with both a single rear and front camera.

The Huawei P20 Pro has 3x optical zoom

With a sharp 3x optical zoom, the Huawei P20 Pro is easily the best here. Both the iPhone X and Galaxy S9 Plus do well with 2x optical zoom while the Pixel 2 relies entirely on digital zoom.

Having that extra reach from the Huawei P20 Pro is perfect for those moments when you're photographing something far away like a concert or a sporting event. The advantage is subjects appear sharper than a digital zoom can capture. And if 3x optical zoom isn't close enough, the Huawei P20 Pro has a 5x hybrid zoom (a combination of optical and digital zoom).

Danny Elfman (left) and Gus Van Sant (center) in interview at the San Francisco International Film Festival. The left photo was taken with the Huawei P20 Pro's standard camera in Night mode. The right photo was taken with 3x optical zoom.

Patrick Holland/CNET

As far as image quality, the Huawei's telephoto camera is sharp, but sometimes colors were muted. In the 2x optical zoom world, the iPhone X has a sharper telephoto lens than the Galaxy S9 Plus.

The Pixel 2 has decent digital zoom thanks to some Google software magic. It often produced good shots at 2x digital zoom, but image quality suffered when zoomed in beyond that.

A comparison of the 3x optical zoom on the Huawei P20 Pro, the 2x optical zoom on the iPhone X and Galaxy S9 Plus and the 2x digital zoom on the Pixel 2.

Patrick Holland/CNET

Zoom winner

The Huawei P20 Pro is the winner here. Unsurprisingly, having 3x optical zoom on a phone makes a huge difference.

iPhone X is the video king

While all four of these phones deliver photos with wonderful image quality, the same can't be said for video. The iPhone X shoots stellar videos that are sharp with balanced colors and a good dynamic range. It also has the most options when it comes to frame rate, resolution and slow motion.

Resolution and frame rate options for each phone

Resolution iPhone X (fps) Galaxy S9 Plus (fps) Pixel 2 (fps) Huawei P20 Pro (fps)
4K 24, 30, 60 30, 60 30 30
1080p 30, 60, 120, 240 30, 60, 240 30, 60, 120 30, 60, 120
720p 30 30, 960 30, 60, 240 30, 960

Sadly, the Huawei P20 Pro doesn't let you shoot video using that telephoto lens. I find it to be an oversight since the iPhone X and Galaxy S9 Plus let you shoot with their telephoto cameras.

Out of all the cameras, the Pixel 2 has hands down the best stabilization for video. It feels like the camera is gliding.

And as far as slow motion, it's bonkers that both the iPhone X and Galaxy S9 Plus can record 240fps at 1080p resolution. Images from both look really good; but like photos, the iPhone X has better dynamic range than the Galaxy S9 Plus. Check out the clip below of both phones:

The Pixel 2 and Huawei P20 Pro offer slow motion at 120fps at 1,080p resolution, but their videos were adequate at best.

Both the Galaxy S9 Plus and Huawei P20 Pro offer a "Super Slow Mo" mode that records 960fps at 720p. This produces some dramatic results, but capturing the perfect 0.2 seconds is challenging. I'd stick to the "regular" slow motion. Take a look at Super Slow Motion from Huawei and Samsung below:

Video winner

With a wide range of recording options, excellent image quality and vivid colors, video from the iPhone X is still ahead of other phones.

Now playing: Watch this: iPhone X vs. Pixel 2: Camera test
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Best all-around phone camera

As far as the complete package goes, I'm looking for a phone that can do multiple things well and for me that's the iPhone X. Photos look great, video is amazing and the user interface is straightforward. The Pixel 2 with its photo power and ridiculously smooth video stabilization is just on the heels of the iPhone X, and the Huawei P20 Pro with that 3x optical zoom and Night mode would be my third choice.

The Galaxy S9 Plus' camera took impressive photos, especially in low light, but it disappointed when it came to videos. I look forward to trying out the Galaxy Note 9, which has the same physical cameras as the Galaxy S9 Plus, but with new software tweaks for photos and videos.

Camera comparisons: All our phone photo shootouts.

Galaxy S9 vs. Pixel 2: Battle of the Android cameras.