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iPhone X vs. Galaxy S9 Plus camera showdown

See the results of our real-world camera comparison between the Samsung Galaxy S9 Plus and the Apple's iPhone X.

Galaxy S9 Plus vs. iPhone X: It's another battle of the camera titans. Samsung and Apple are continually pushing the limits in phone photography, and with the Galaxy S9 and Galaxy S9 Plus, Samsung has stepped up its camera game.

Galaxy S9 Plus and iPhone X specs


Galaxy S9 Plus iPhone X
Wide-angle resolution 12 megapixels 12 megapixels
Telephoto resolution 12 megapixels 12 megapixels
Variable aperture f/1.5, f/2.4 f/1.8
Telephoto aperture f/2.4 f/2.4
Optical image stabilization Both lenses Both lenses
Cinematic video stablization 1080p, 720p 1080p, 720p
Optical zoom 2x 2x
Digital zoom 10x 10x
4K video fps 24, 30, 60 24, 30, 60
1080p video fps 30, 60, 120, 240 30, 60, 120, 240
Front camera resolution 8 megapixels 7 megapixels
Front camera aperture f/1.7 f/2.2
64GB price $799, £799, AU$1,229 $999, £999, AU$1,579
256GB price $949, £949, AU$1,479 $1,149, £1,149, AU$1,829

The S9 and S9 Plus are the first Galaxy phones with a variable aperture. This means the cameras can adapt to different lighting conditions without losing sharpness. They can both also take super slow-motion video, while the S9 Plus gets a dual-camera setup similar to the one on the Note 8.

But do all these features translate into better photos and video, and can the Galaxy S9 Plus outperform the iPhone X?

I took a trip to the snowy mountains of Lake Tahoe, California to find out which camera is best.

General shots  

In ideal light, and when using automatic settings, there's no doubt these two phones are at the top of their class in terms of mobile photography. You'll notice slight differences in color temperature and texture: The Galaxy S9 Plus tends to be a warmer, while the iPhone X has cooler hues. But neither overshadows the other, and the "best" in these conditions is likely subjective.

When recording video at 1080p at 60 frames per second, the differences are also subtle. The Galaxy S9 Plus tends to have more contrast saturation in the shot, which makes it look sharper -- and darker. Video on the iPhone X is brighter, making the shot look softer. Shadows are not as harsh, but there's not as much depth. I tended to favor the iPhone, whereas some of my coworkers preferred the S9. It also varies depending on the type of screen on which you're viewing the end product.

They both have optical image stabilization on both lenses and videos look smooth. The tracking shots even look good when I'm panting up a snowy mountain trail chasing my pup, Charlie. The iPhone X may have done a slightly better job at keeping the shot steady, but the Galaxy S9 Plus had smoother transitions through lighting changes. Both seemed to keep focus on Charlie for the entire clip.

And they can both record in up to 4K resolution at 60fps.

Aperture on the S9 Plus

Both the Galaxy S9 and the S9 Plus include a variable aperture on the main, wide-angle lens. This allows the lens to adjust to changes in light. The mechanism mimics what the pupil does in the human eye: It widens in the dark to let in more light while becoming more narrow in bright light.

galaxy-s9-aperture-adjust-lens-cms-size-gif

GIF by Sean Hollister/CNET

The Galaxy S9 only has two aperture options to choose from: f/1.5 (wide) and f/2.4 (narrow), compared to a DSLR which has a much greater range. Still, this a pretty big deal on a phone. This means the phone is constantly having to guess which aperture to use in each shot. It also needs to be more versatile in the type of lighting it can produce for the shot.

In this shot of the lake, the Galaxy S9 Plus looks softer, while the iPhone's shot has more contrast and texture.

But in this shot of my son in the snow, it's the S9 Plus on the left that has the higher contrast.

The iPhone's aperture is fixed at f/1.8, which means it's relying on image processing and shutter speed to adjust to different lighting conditions. Shots on the iPhone X also look great, but since it has fewer options to play with, you get a consistent look across all the photos.

Pro mode on Galaxy S9

The Galaxy S9 Plus also lets you take matters into your own hands with Pro mode, which you can access by swiping down next to the viewfinder. This allows you to select the aperture manually and adjust other settings like ISO, shutter speed and focus.

Both of the images above were shot with the Galaxy S9 Plus. The one on the left was shot with the aperture on f/1.5 and the one on the right was at f/2.4. 

You can even select aperture for video when you're in Pro mode on the Galaxy S9 Plus. If you want more control over your video, you can adjust the settings before you hit record. You can't switch aperture while you're already shooting the video, but you can adjust ISO, color temperature and focus.

But when you're out and about, settings are the last thing you're going to want to mess with. At least they were for me. When you're hiking up a snow-capped mountain trail with a baby chasing a rambunctious dog, pointing and shooting is the way to go.

And that was one of the problems I had with the Super Slow-Mo feature on the S9 Plus. It's not exactly straightforward. 

Slow-mo

The Galaxy S9 Plus has a new Super Slow-Motion mode that allows you to shoot video at 960fps at a 720P resolution. Compare that to the max 240fps frame rate of the iPhone X in full HD (1080p).

At 960 frames per second, slow-motion video is much more dramatic on the S9 Plus, but it doesn't shoot the entire clip at this frame rate and it's not as sharp as full HD.

Let me explain. In automatic mode, the phone creates a virtual space in the frame to detect movement. You can move the box and expand it to encompass a wider area of movement. But once you start recording, the phone decides what part of the video warrants the slower frame rate based on the action in the shot. Only about 3 to 5 seconds' worth turns up in slow-motion regardless of the length of the clip, in my experience.

And it didn't always get the best motion in slow-mo. At least not the one I would've chosen. You can also do this manually, but getting it right is even harder on your own, unless it's a repetitive motion like a waterfall or campfire. A snowball fight, or a puppy running through the snow -- forget about it. It would start the slow-mo too late or too early, and there's no adjusting it later. Plus it doesn't record audio. Instead it defaults to a generic theme song that didn't really match what I was seeing.

But when the Galaxy S9 Plus does get it right, the results are impressive, more so than the iPhone X's. Just watch our video to see for yourself.

Now Playing: Watch this: Galaxy S9 Plus vs. iPhone X: Watch the cameras in action
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Slow motion on the iPhone X is simple. Just point and shoot. That's it. And the whole clip can be in slow-mo if you want it to be, because the phone lets you edit the clip later and adjust when the slow-motion effect begins.

Like the iPhone, the S9 also has the option to shoot in 240 fps at 1080p. It also lets you adjust the clip later, but you'll have to dig it out of the camera settings to add it to the main interface. Super Slow-Mo is the default option on the Galaxy S9 Plus.

Portraits and zoom

But what about the second lens? Both phones have a second telephoto lens with similar specs (12 megapixels) for optical zoom at 2x magnification and blurred background effect on portraits.

At 2x magnification, both produce great results. But when I looked closely at the shots, I noticed the S9's was a bit sharper. You'll notice it mainly if you look at the dog in the shot above. 

The iPhone X has Portrait mode and the S9 Plus has Live Focus with a similar setup to the Galaxy Note 8. Both are easy to access from the main interface on the camera, but neither is perfect at distinguishing between the background and the foreground for what to blur in the shot. Neither phone is yet at the level of a DSLR, but most portraits look good enough to post and even print on both phones.

Portraits on the iPhone seem to be cooler and more true to life, because it retains more detail in faces of people, babies and dogs (which is what I tried it on). The S9's shot appears to be more flattering because it makes faces brighter and evens out shadows and skin tones.

But sometimes the retouching on the S9 Plus can backfire. In the photo above, the S9 seems to have applied the same filter on my face as it did to my son's. On his face it evened out his skin tone and reduced redness, but the same effect on me made my skin turn yellowish.

Live Focus on the S9 Plus lets you adjust the blur as you're taking the shot to intensify or diminish the effect. I ended up using this feature a lot more than the Portrait lighting effects on the iPhone

Front-facing camera

If you're a fan of selfies, both phones also have a blurred background effect on the front-facing cameras. The iPhone X has a 7-megapixel depth-sensing camera, which is slightly better at figuring out what to blur in the shot. The S9 Plus has a slightly sharper 8-megapixel sensor with a wider angle.

But both rely on software to create the portrait effect, so neither is as good as the rear camera. In other words, don't expect perfection.

For general selfies, though, I prefer the wider angle of the S9 Plus. For video on the front-facing camera, the opposite is true as the S9 gets a little too close for comfort with a more narrow field of view than the iPhone X.  

Low-light shots

When the sun goes down, the S9 Plus really shines. The wider aperture allows it to let in more light without sacrificing detail and picture quality.

Both did well considering how dark it was on the lakefront, but in the shot above, there's clearly no competition. The shot on the S9 looks smooth and bright, while the iPhone's looks darker and grainier. And once you zoom in, it's even more obvious. While the S9 is still able to capture some detail of the trees and the smoke out in the distance, the iPhone shot looks like an impressionist painting.

The Galaxy also did a better job at evening out the lighting in the cabin shot above, while the cabin on the iPhone looks blown out.

And the same applies to video. But here the differences aren't as apparent as in still photography. Video on the Galaxy S9 looks slightly sharper and more saturated, while its still shot is slightly darker, more subdued and not quite as sharp.

Photographing subjects in bad lighting is tough on both phones, especially if there's movement. The S9 Plus still looks brighter in the glow of the campfire, but the pictures of my son came out blurry and the color temperature seems way too warm. I noticed the same thing when shooting video of this scene. Colors on the iPhone are more true to life, but the shot looks darker.

But when the subject is standing still, like this shot of Charlie the pup, the S9 has no problem. The colors may be more realistic on the iPhone, but there's a lot of noise in the shot and you can barely see the pup. 

The Galaxy S9's shot is bright and smooth. And for food shots, it's impressive -- just look at the texture it was able to capture on the onion in this dimly lit restaurant. 

The verdict

Both have their strengths and weaknesses. Colors on the iPhone seem slightly more accurate and portraits more true to life, but the S9 Plus is the clear winner in low-light photography and this time video is neck-and-neck.

The S9 Plus is great if you want to take your phone photography to the next level and you're willing to put in some work to get shots looking better. The iPhone X is more consistent and does most of the work for you, but you're limited in your shooting options. And as with most of these comparisons, it comes down to what you're looking for in a camera. 

Samsung Galaxy S9 Plus review: The Samsung phone you really want this year.

Apple iPhone X review: The best iPhone challenges you to think different.